The earthquake is over apparently. The Conservative Party has won the Newark by-election and the UKIP fox has been shot for the mangy creature it is. This is the gleeful tone many are taking, and will continue to take, out of desperation that maybe their worldview is not the worldview of as many people as they thought.
The indignation that quite a lot of people are not in benign agreement with current policies concerning the EU and mass immigration is tangible. And a favourite way to attack an inconvenient presence is to construct a straw man – who cares what one does to an inanimate straw man?
In this case it is to pretend that UKIP expect to win the 2015 General Election, or at the very least win enough seats to occupy a sizeable block on the green Westminster benches. When they fail, as they surely will if this is the absurdly high bar over which they are expected to jump, the crowing can quicken and everyone can be reassured that the British people are neither racist nor xenophobic nor bigoted and that the incumbents of power were right about almost everything all along.
The thing is, straw men arguments are not real. Fabricate something your opponent says or does and then demonstrate with smug and abundant ease how they are wrong or have failed in their objective. It’s an old trick, but a favourite. As it happened, the figures, far from reassuring the Conservatives, should worry them considerably – and Labour, who won Newark in 1997. UKIP support could very well drift away, but the evidence suggests not just yet. Here are the results from the BBC:
- Robert Jenrick (Con) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82%).
- Roger Helmer (UKIP) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09%).
- Michael Payne (Lab) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65%).
- Paul Baggaley (Ind) 1,891 (4.89%).
- David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%).
- David Watts (LD) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41%).
- Con majority 7,403 (19.13%) 15.46%
- Turnout 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69%)
I don’t know what the psephologists will make of this data. Perhaps we will be told to account for the ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude some voters assume at by-elections; perhaps we will be told that the high UKIP vote is the result of momentum which will run out before next year’s election. But whatever we are told, it is difficult to see how anyone can regard the UKIP vote, 25.9% no less, as anything other than highly significant. They polled more than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.
The threat posed by UKIP to the status quo has never been – and almost certainly won’t be for some time, if ever – taking enough seats to create that sizeable Westminster block, let alone forming a government. The threat is that UKIP takes enough votes to alter the outcome of the General election, or to deny one of the two major parties a majority.
And on the basis of the local council elections, the EU election and this by-election, the UKIP threat is still very much present. It might fall away, that much we should all concede not least because of our First-Past-The-Post system; but the evidence so far suggests the earthquake is not over yet, even if it remains rather low on the Richter Scale.