How are the two parties reacting to their bruising night in the two by-elections? David Cameron – after telling us, helpfully, that ‘there were two by-elections last night’ – went on to say repeatedly that the results spoke to a ‘wider truth’, that if you vote Ukip, you’re in danger of getting a government led by Ed Miliband.
Miliband said the Tory party were ‘in retreat on what used to be their front line in the North West’ but that there wouldn’t be a ‘shred of complacency’ from his party in reaching out to those who either didn’t vote Labour or didn’t vote at all. He disappeared into a convenient car before he had a chance to answer the inconvenient question about Ukip doing so well and coming so close to Labour.
There is some histrionic surprise from the Labour side that last night’s result is being written up as a bad night for Miliband’s party when it did hold onto the seat and when the Tories not only lost Clacton but also saw their vote collapse in Heywood and Middleton. Those expressing surprise are either failing to appreciate or deliberately ignoring the fact that the Clacton result had been factored in to the Westminster narrative, while the closeness of the Heywood vote had not. They argue that they maintained their share of the vote from 2010, but even this fails to acknowledge firstly that the 2010 election was the one Gordon Brown lost, and secondly that their share of the vote in the constituency has fallen by 17 percentage points since 1997:
Privately party figures do acknowledge that this was not a good result and that there is plenty to chew over. Their initial analysis identifies four things at play: Lib Dem voters coming to Labour (which bodes well for the 35 per cent strategy for 2015), some pre-2010 Labour voters going to Ukip, a co-ordination of the anti-Labour vote around Ukip and some supporters who should remain loyal next year staying at home for this vote. They also see that Ukip is becoming the tactical voting choice of the Right in areas where the Tories are insufficiently strong, especially the North (although the Tories are much stronger in the North West than many casual observers realise). And they argue that though the share of the vote only increased a little from 2010, in a low turnout election even a small increase on a previously unimpressive result is encouraging.
The Conservatives may have factored in the Clacton result, but they are also privately disappointed that they didn’t cut further into Douglas Carswell’s majority. I understand they had hoped to push it down to around 10,000.
But as the two main parties mull what happened with their voters, both should pause and reflect on whether politics has changed so much in recent years that they cannot honestly call those people ‘their’ voters any more. It is the point that Frank Field makes today when he says that ‘if last night’s vote heralds the start of UKIP’s serious assault into Labour’s neglected core vote, all bets are off for safer, let alone marginal seats at the next election’. In an election where Labour plans to lean heavily on its core, it may find that the core has crumbled far too much for this to be a safe strategy.
Certainly from now on politicians shouldn’t be assuming that any group of voters is ‘theirs’. But the responses from both parties have suggested that this has not yet percolated. Cameron talks to would-be Ukip voters as though they should just come back home to the Tories, without acknowledging that they might rather see a Miliband government than be disappointed by the Conservatives once again. Miliband’s line, which involves a suggestion that his party will reach out rather than simply command back, is better but still includes the ‘two Tories on the ballot paper’ message, which again assumes that Labour is the natural home of these people, rather than that they might have dispensed with their loyalty long ago.
After every result like this, the party leaders talk about the need for change. There is always something a little lost and unsure in their eyes that suggests they don’t know what ‘change’ really means. A simple step might be to start assuming that a political party needs to make a sincere appeal to all voters, rather than assuming that they’ve got them in the bag.