On the morning of UKIP’s election victory in the Rochester and Strood byelection, the story of the day should have been the crisis faced by the David Cameron and his government as they lose a second seat in less than a month.
But instead the Labour leadership has given the Tory press an alternative narrative – the resignation of Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general.
She “resigned” over a tweet she sent showing a terraced house with three England flags and a white van parked outside. Alongside the picture, she wrote: “Image from Rochester”.
A spokesperson for Ed Milliband briefed the BBC last night saying, “Ed was incandescent with rage with Emily.”
Thornberry’s tweet was insensitive and, yes, it represents a strand of anti-working class snobbery that sadly is common in some sections of the Labour Party.
But for a party that supports war and austerity but can’t bring itself to back public sector strikers, to oppose the cap on benefits or stand up against anti-immigrant rhetoric, it can hardly be regarded as a resignation matter. By accepting her resignation, Ed Miliband has shot himself in the foot.
But now to the main and most important story of the evening, once again UKIP have won another Parliamentary by-election – this time in Rochester and Strood.
UKIP also won a council by-election in the same constituency that night.
Rochester & Strood by-election Nov 2014
|% of vote
Rochester and Strood – general election 2010
|% of vote
It may not have been a landslide electoral victory on the scale of Clacton, but UKIP’s electoral bandwagon continues to roll on towards the general election in May 2015. We will also see the mainstream parties bend even further towards UKIP’s racist agenda.
The byelection result is a disaster for the Tories. Over the last four weeks Tory Central Office threw everything at Rochester in order to win. Cameron visited the constituency five times and ministers and MPs visited the constituency every day. Over 1,000 Conservative activists were bussed in.
The Tories will now fear that more MPs will defect. The new UKIP MP Mark Reckless claims he is in talks with two other Tory MPs. And again UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage hinted last night that another Tory was leaving.
It was not a good night for Labour. Rochester ought to have been a hotly contested seat for the party, but instead it came a poor third.
Claims that boundary changes meant that it was no longer a seat Labour could win do not hold water. Labour needed a 10% swing on its 2010 vote to win the seat. Rochester is the kind of seat Labour must take if it is going to win the 2015 general election.
A second concern for Labour is the fact that there was also a significant switching of Labour voters to UKIP. As we noted ahead of the election, an Ashcroft poll conducted just a week before the election found that 40% of those who voted Labour in 2010 in Rochester were now backing UKIP. For comparison, 44% of 2010 Tory voters have followed Mark Reckless to UKIP.
Once again the Lib Dem vote has collapsed. To put this perspective, the Lib Dems actually broke the all-time record low vote for a main party in any Westminster election.
Encouragingly the Greens won 4% of the vote, beating the Lib Dems into fourth place.
The Rochester and Strood byelection is further evidence that centre politics in Britain is in decline. On the right of British politics there is only one party and one beneficiary – UKIP.
It is not as straightforward for the left. There are a myriad of different choices: the Greens, Respect, TUSC, Left Unity and a number of alternatives in Scotland. That leaves the left electoral challenge divided and therefore weaker.
The challenge we face is helping to create a credible political and electoral opposition to UKIP’s racism and anti-working class policies. We also need to build Stand Up to UKIP into a campaign that can drive the far right racist populist UKIP back into the gutter.