The Eastleigh by-election result is a shock to English politics. The Liberal Democrats may have retained the seat vacated by the departure of former Environment Secretary Chris Huhne, but it is UKIP’s success in coming second that shakes the political landscape.
For years, the Liberal Democrats benefited from protest votes. Slowly, they converted mid-term by-election protest votes into greater General Election success.
The party emerged from the 2010 General Election holding the balance of power and formed a coalition with the Conservatives. It brought them into Government, but the price was to surrender their position as the primary protest party. But would the public turn to the opposition Labour party instead?
While the answer from traditional Labour areas in by-elections had mostly been “yes”, in Eastleigh, which was a close Liberal Democrat-Tory fight in 2010, the answer was “no”. Labour’s share of the vote barely changed.
In Eastleigh voters could have sent a message to the government to modify its stance by strengthening the vote of whichever party, Tory or Liberal Democrat, that outside of coalition politics might more closely reflect their beliefs. But both parties saw their share of the vote drop by about 14 per cent from 2010, while UKIP’s share jumped 24 per cent.
The United Kingdom Independence Party was formed in 1993 to campaign for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. That made UKIP an obvious protest vote in European election campaigns, but before this Parliament the party had struggled to convert those votes into success on the domestic front, where international politics comes much further down many voters’ batting order of priorities.
As with a geological earthquake, there were foreshocks. UKIP came second in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Barnsley Central – albeit a long way behind Labour. And George Galloway’s win for the Respect Party last year showed Labour could not take their heartlands for granted – though the extent to which personality and other factors may have played a part left room for doubt over what it meant with regards to protest votes in England more broadly.
After Eastleigh, we know UKIP can break into the top two in any seat, no matter which of the big three English parties voters traditionally leaned towards. It clearly suggests the political landscape has changed and UKIP are a serious player in by-elections. The question now is whether they can carry that into the General Election and will it shape the composition of the next Parliament? It is a question that will bedevil political strategists as they work out how to position their parties for the big one.
NB. I referred to English politics because the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties mean different dynamics come into play in the other UK nations.