1 Mar 2013

Is Ukip now a force to be reckoned with?

Ukip’s result in Eastleigh marks the third time in the last three months that the party has beaten the Conservatives at a by-election. Is it now a political force to be reckoned with?

Ukip candidate Diane James polled 27.8 per cent of the vote in Eastleigh, a little over 4 per cent behind the winning Liberal Democrat candidate and a dramatic increase on the 3.6 per cent the party polled in the 2010 general election in the same constituency.

Significantly, she was 2.4 per cent ahead of Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings.

The result is an embarrassment for Conservative leader David Cameron, but the prime minster shrugged the result off as a mid-term “protest”.

“I am confident that at the general election we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering for everyone who wants to work hard and wants to get on,” he said.

But how confident should Mr Cameron be? Ukip leader Nigel Farage, speaking after the eastleigh result, denied that it was “just a protest” (see video, below).

It is not protesting against any one party in particular, it is protesting against the entire political class – Nigel Farage

“There’s a trend here. We’ve seen by-elections in Barnsley, we’ve seen by-elections in Middlesbrough, in Rotherham, where Ukip came second,” he said.

“Up until now we’ve had our best scores in solid, safe Labour seats, but this time we’ve done it in a southern constituency. And if those people who haven’t voted for years are turning up and voting Ukip, that cannot qualify simply as a protest vote.

Read Political Editor Gary Gibbon's blog: Tory options limited after Eastleigh

“In fact, what we are doing now is engaging people to get back and take part in politics who feel utterly disenfranchised with the other three.

“That’s not to say there isn’t an element of protest voting in there, but it is not protesting against any one party in particular, it is protesting against the entire political class.”

Mr Farage said his party had polled the most votes on the day of the by-election, Thursday, but had lost out to the Liberal Democrats on the postal vote – and implied that if the election had not been called so quickly, Ukip could have done better.

Growing success

Since the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition was formed in 2010, the percentage of votes polled at UK by-elections has dramatically risen (see graph, above).

From the five by-elections in 2011, Ukip polled an average of 5.47 per cent of the vote – including one anomolous result in Barnsley when the party came in second.

However, in the seven by-elections Ukip contested in 2012, that average rose to 9.58 per cent, with the party’s best results coming towards the end of the year.

Since the coalition government was formed, Ukip has now come second in four by-elections. In the previous Labour government term, from 2005 to 2010, the highest Ukip managed to poll in a by-election was 8.9 per cent, in the Bromley and Chislehurst constituency, when Mr Farage stood and came in third.

Should David Cameron be worried about the threat of Nigel Farage as Ukip surpasses the Conservatives in the Eastleigh by-election (pictures: Getty)