Last night’s by-election results were bad for both the main Westminster parties. The Tories did not manage to make significant inroads into Douglas Carswell’s majority, and their vote collapsed in Heywood. Their main saving grace is that the Rochester by-election has united the party in fury and is a fight they think they can win. This means troublemakers will stay quiet for the time being. But the relative unity that is expected today will evaporate if they then fail to win a seat the party has briefed it is likely to win.
As for the message to voters, who can now see an MP representing and validating Ukip in the House of Commons, the Tories have decided to scare people. Grant Shapps told Sky News earlier that ‘Ed Miliband is now a step closer to Downing Street’ and that the Labour leader would be ‘smiling’ at the result in Clacton. It is a tactic designed to spook voters into seriously considering Ed Miliband’s prime ministerial qualities. But it us predicated on voters believing there really is a difference between the Tories and Labour.
The bigger surprise is that Ukip ran Labour so close in Heywood and Middleton. Ed Miliband should not be smiling that a previously safe Labour seat could have gone to Ukip but his party’s response thus far is that it held into its 2010 share of the vote in that seat while Ukip took votes from the Tories and Lib Dems. Yet those voters did not desert the government parties for the opposition to increase its share of the vote from an election Gordon Brown lost. That is to be expected in a by-election, though, when voters behave differently to a general election. The result will give Miliband’s more determined critics the excuse to agitate against him further, and it will also unnerve those critical friends who fear the Labour leadership is not taking the Ukip threat sufficiently seriously. Miliband was scheduled to visit Heywood today. It will be interesting to see how he plays this close win.
The usual response after these things is for party leaders to say something along the lines of ‘we’ve listened, we’ll change’ while looking a little unsure as to what that change would entail. This morning the parties appear defiant, but how will they respond in private? Do they want to change? Both give the impression that they still rather think Ukip will stop causing them trouble soon.