Following yesterday’s by-election in Rochester & Strood, Mark has outlined his initial thoughts below on the result and its potential ramifications –
1. The evaporation of a near 10,000 majority has inevitably triggered a frenzied post-mortem which Conservatives must avoid turning into unrest.
2. The truth is that victory in Rochester & Strood, whilst widely anticipated at the start of the campaign, would have been an historically remarkable achievement.
After all the Conservatives have (with the exception of Newark this June) now simply extended the run of unsuccessful defences of seats in a by-election whilst we have been in office. Other than in Newark, not since February 1989 have we contrived to win such a contest, so why did we ever assume this dismal run might come to an end in north Kent?
3. Disappointing though the result was, it was by no means unusually poor. On the basis of recent contests, I anticipated a drop in the Tory vote of between one-third and one-half and a collapse by nine-tenths in the Liberal Democrat vote – reducing it from 16% to deposit-losing territory. This is precisely what happened and it essentially meant that the other two main parties, Labour and UKIP, would between them be boosted to the net aggregate tune of 30%. For the Tories to have won the by-election in these (predictable) circumstances would have required the two challenger parties to have been neck-and-neck. Yes, it was not impossible, but once opinion polling suggested that a UKIP win was on the cards, it became self-fulfilling.
4. We could not have put more effort into the ground campaign, and I commiserate with all who worked so hard, but it was clear that by the time the by-election was called, we had little data that would have assisted in our ‘Get Out the Vote’ campaign. The personalised campaign against UKIP candidate, Mark Reckless, most of whose independent-minded opinions had been recorded during his time as a Tory MP, was probably misguided.
5. It is not simply whistling in the wind to suggest that Labour should be every bit as worried by their dismal performance here. Indeed proportionately their vote fell by even more than the Conservatives’ – a four-tenths collapse in share. Whilst boundary changes mean this is not quite as favourable territory for them as it was in 1997, 2001 and 2005 when the Medway seat was narrowly won, it was a seat even in the torrid circumstances of 2010 General Election, when the Party failed to achieve three-tenths of the votes nationally, that it came second with a 28% share. Its dire performance here in spite of a strong candidate suggests that it will have its work cut out winning rather more challenging Con-Lab marginals at the General Election.
6. It is important that the Conservatives now hold our nerve; UKIP is above all a cultural phenomenon; not by any means Europe/immigration alone. UKIP has tapped into the increasingly strong sense of disconnect between the electorate and a political class that drives through political reform without consent. As David Cameron rightly says, government is often a complicated business and not readily susceptible to UKIP’s simple, homespun ‘solutions’. This is the relentless Conservative message we need to get across to potential UKIP voters at a time of economic and political insecurity.
Ironically there is today more to choose between the main political parties than at any time in the past 25 years: yet all too many voters see Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Osborne and Balls as interchangeable professional politicians. This is the essence of UKIP’s appeal – the outsiders willing to break the system. The fact that they have also now evidently made significant inroads into the Labour vote makes any continued talk by Conservative colleagues of a formal ‘Conservative-UKIP’ pact a non-starter: the ‘anti politicians’ party would only alienate their newly-won left-leaning supporters by joining forces with us.
7. I guess Mark Reckless knows in his heart that he has not won by enough votes to be confident of holding his seat in May.
We Conservatives now need to impress upon the public that politics is a complicated business not susceptible to UKIP’s simple solutions whether abandoning the EU, repatriating immigrants or abolishing the NHS.