By John FitzGibbon (Senior Lecturer in Politics)
It has not even been 24 hours since the election of Mark Reckless as the MP for the Kent constituency of Rochester and Strood but the media hysteria is building already. The story will dominate the weekend news cycle in the print and televised media. But before you dive in to this coverage there are a few key points to keep in mind.
1. This is a by election win, not a general election win. That distinction is important. It is worth repeating this again and again. This is a one off election just under seven months before a general election. Voters in Rochester and Strood had the opportunity to take a gamble on a known politician with the option of replacing him in a short period of time if it didn’t work out. A general election is a totally different scenario. Voters consider national questions, who they want to be Prime Minister, what national policies they want implement at a general election. For a by election the temptation is to give the government parties a good kicking. The voters of Rochester and Strood have delivered a sure footed stroke to the midriff of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. But the general election will be different. A big international event or a national focus on a specific policy could lead to UKIP being left on the sidelines as voters consider more serious matters that they do not trust the party with.
2. The value of incumbency. Both Reckless and his other newly re-elected UKIP colleague Douglas Carswell were already sitting MPs when they stood as rebranded UKIP candidates. The media narrative was very much focused on Reckless leaving little space for the other candidates to build a profile. Moreover the delay by the Conservatives in choosing a candidate further exacerbated this recognition divide. While the eventual Tory standard bearer was clearly not as good as Reckless, as witnessed in the BBC South East TV debate.
3. Britain is turning into a true multi-party state and the Conservatives and Labour don’t know what to do. The two largest parties seem utterly shocked that voters are looking beyond them to see what else is out there in the party spectrum. As a means of reconnecting with voters the Conservatives have resorted to imported gimmicks such as primaries, which voters neither want or understand. Meanwhile Labour are having a fit of paranoia as evidenced by what must be the quickest scandal in recent British politics with Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry resigning after tweeting a picture of a Rochester house bedecked with St. George’s flags and a white van out the front. Both parties have reaslied that being perceived as being out of touch with voters is their main problem and the reason for UKIP’s success. Neither have realised how to change this perception, however.
4. UKIP will be under the microscope as never before. A window on the pressures UKIP will face was thrown open on Wednesday when Mark Reckless said that the party’s immigration policy would include “deportations”. His comments were immediately put down to tiredness by the party but the point is that UKIP’s policy cupboard is threadbare. Last week footage emerged of UKIP leader Nigel Farage taken in 2012 stating that he preferred a system of private health insurance instead of the NHS. The number one issue in the Rochester Strood by election was the local Medway hospital. Reckless stated many times that he was in favour of the NHS and increased funding for the hospital. But UKIP will have to start to reconcile their many libertarian economic beliefs with public support for the NHS and other statist policies. Labour believe that attacking them on the NHS will shore up their loss of voters. For UKIP they need to start looking beyond Europe and Immigration for talking points.
5. British politics is in tumult, good. All of this makes for a fascinating time for British politics. In Scotland the SNP are on the march and on current opinion polls could take upwards of 50 seats according to some sources. UKIP are drawing support from both the Conservatives and Labour. The Greens are becoming more prominent and represent a new political force on the left. British voters are unhappy with the status quo and with the Rochester and Strood by election result they have shown they are more than willing to try something new.