Is UKIP’s Eastleigh elevation the shape of things to come, both south and north of the Border? Euan McColm investigates
DIANE James can surely be forgiven her moment of hyperbole. The UK Independence Party candidate in the Eastleigh by-election had come within fewer than 2,000 votes of winning the seat left vacant by the resignation of Chris Huhne, awaiting sentence for perverting the course of justice as he sought to avoid a driving ban. The Liberal Democrats might have held the seat in the end but James was excited.
The result – which saw an increase in UKIP’s vote in the constituency of 672 per cent and the Tories pushed into third place – represented, she said, a “seismic shift” in British politics.
Whether a UKIP loss in a by-election is earth-shaking or not is debatable, but James’s party leader, Nigel Farage, was certain of one thing. “Something is changing,” he said. “People are sick and tired of having three social democrat parties that are frankly indistinguishable from each other.”
Mainstream parties quickly wrote off UKIP’s remarkable result as the effect of protest. But privately, leaders of the three main UK parties – and the SNP – are less dismissive of UKIP’s chances of making electoral progress at both Westminster and Holyrood. They admit that immigration is an issue with voter-purchase that they have failed to address.
On camera, Prime Minister David Cameron brave-faced it. “It is a disappointing result for the Conservative Party, but it is clear that, in mid-term by-elections, people want to register a protest,” he said. “But 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.” There would be no shift right to address the success of UKIP, he added.
But Tory MPs were not united behind this message. The party’s vice-chairman Michael Fabricant tweeted: “The Conservative voice is muffled and not crisp. It does not clearly project Conservative core policies or principles.” And “UKIP appealed to protest voters but also to Blue Collar Conservative voters”.
Eleanor Laing and Douglas Carswell were among others who questioned whether the Tories are the right course. Carswell wondered why the party is on a “long march of defeat”.
The PM may claim this was a protest, but others in the party clearly see UKIP as a threat. Farage and company played a minor role in the 2010 election, and even then Cameron could not secure an overall majority. UKIP polling in double figures would kill off Tory hopes in a number of marginals upon which the PM would depend for an outright election victory.
But while focus, after Eastleigh, might fall naturally on UKIP’s potential impact on Westminster politics, the party is turning its attentions to Scotand.
Just a fortnight ago, Farage was ridiculed when he visited Scotland to try to sell the UKIP message. He dismissed Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as “grossly out of her depth” in the argument over whether an independent Scotland would be an EU member. Not only that, but Farage described the SNP’s campaign for Scottish independence as “dead in the water”.
It was a typically flamboyant set piece from Farage, whose forceful personality has kept UKIP afloat over years of party infighting and scandals ranging from expenses irregularities to accusations of racism and homophobia against officials and elected members.
A Nationalist spokesman snorted that Farage’s comments were not only wrong but irrelevant. “Mr Farage and his colleagues have never moved beyond the far fringes of Scottish Politics,” he added.
The day after UKIP came so close to an upset in Eastleigh, the party’s Scottish chairman Mike Scott-Hayward – a former Tory councillor in Fife – rejects that accusation.
“We might not have won seats in Holyrood or Westminster, yet, but the party’s making real progress in Scotland. Just over a year ago, we were registering a couple of per cent, but we’ve all seen polling that puts us up at 9 per cent, ahead of the Lib Dems.
“If we can get up to 11 per cent by the 2016 Holyrood election, then we’ll see UKIP MSPs. We’ve jumped from 2 to 9 per cent in a year. We don’t have much further to go and we haven’t even started the fight yet.”
There may be a “chattering classes” rejection of UKIP, says Scott-Hayward, but the party is hitting on issues that interest “real people”. Scots care about issues around immigration and EU influence as much as English voters do, he insists, regardless of a narrative that describes his party as “Little Englanders”.
Perhaps surprisingly, Scott-Hayward’s claim is given some credibility by opponents. A veteran Scottish Labour staffer admits: “We all do the focus groups and a striking thing is how perception of UKIP and the issues it focuses on are not necessarily seen as extreme or particularly right wing by people across the board.
“Mainstream political parties can’t ignore that. Voters aren’t all party members and that means they’ll happily float around and sometimes people form views on different issues that can seem bizarre, side by side. When we talk about immigration in focus groups, people have strong views. They’re our voters, and SNP voters and they think we should have been better on these issues down the years.”
A Lib Dem source agrees: “Life would be easier if they didn’t, but a lot of people can be all signed up to the social justice that we talk about and still agree with UKIP on immigration. That’s voters for you.”
On Friday, Farage said the Eastleigh result “entirely changes the public perception of UKIP”. His party had been subjected to attacks by a media driven by political agendas, while the other parties would “not hesitate to club together to attack.” That UKIP had done so well in the face of this hostility was evidence that people no longer see a vote for UKIP as a wasted vote.
If that is true, Farage must take the credit. A larger-than-life character (“and, you know, quite good company” admits one opponent), he’s by far the party’s most recognisable figure. But his loudest-bloke-in-the-golf-club-bar persona is not necessarily right for Holyrood, both opponents and UKIP sources admit.
A Labour MP says: “When Farage comes up to Scotland, it’s not a problem. He’s not a figure most Scots identify with. He’s a bit of a puffed-up wee Englishman for our tastes. Why would you worry about a bloke like that?”
But a Labour staffer counters: “The problem for the rest of us will be if UKIP can find a recognisable, engaging Scottish figurehead. If we go into the 2016 election and they’ve got a slate of candidates who’re retired colonels and oddballs, then so what? They’ll vanish. But if they can find someone to give it some focus then there’s a big protest vote out there that we’re never going to get and nobody else is, either.
“Do you think everyone who voted Scottish Socialist Party was a revolutionary communist? There’s a protest vote that follows charisma before ideology. If UKIP gets its act together, there’s 10 to 15 per cent of the vote out there looking for somewhere to protest.”
The notion that UKIP can sweep up the disaffected finds sympathy from some Scottish Conservatives. A party source said: “It’s right to say there are people none of the established parties will attract, but it’s wrong to think all those people share the same ideology. If you can say we’re different to the mainstream, that’s an in.”
The source accepts UKIP could pick off disaffected Tories in Scotland. “It’s been tough for us trying to modernise. The whole thing with us just now is we have modernisers and traditionalists pulling against each other.
“We can’t win without them united and it doesn’t help if our traditionalists start seeing UKIP as a legitimate alternative. We need to be careful that we don’t leave traditionalists behind when UKIP are sniffing about them.”
UKIP is currently led in Scotland by Christopher Monckton, the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. This former Tory adviser and hereditary peer is hardly Holyrood electoral box office. The point made by opponents about UKIP’s need to find a more compelling Scottish figurehead is not dismissed by Scott-Hayward.
“Chris works hard, we all do, and we’re making progress, but we’re looking for new candidates now and we may find others emerging. Whether we go down that route of a high-profile figure, I don’t know, but we are getting new members and we’ll be standing full lists of candidates in every region, and targeting a number of constituencies, too.”
UKIP’s strategy is likely to see them field a candidate against Alex Salmond in his Gordon constituency, on the basis that where the First Minister goes, so do the TV cameras.
Scott-Hayward won’t be drawn too far on Scottish party membership – “around the four figures mark” – but he’s actively seeking more. “I’m travelling a lot, meeting people and setting up branches. I was in Orkney last week. I put a notice in the paper just saying I’d be in Kirkwall and if anyone wanted to talk to me about the party, I’d be delighted.
“In the end, we got a decent turn out and we’ve now got a branch in Orkney. A local businessman Paul Dawson’s chairing the branch. He came to UKIP because he felt we had the best ideas for business,” says Scott-Hayward, adding “Paul used to be an SNP member, but he realised Independence inside Europe isn’t independence at all.”
Scott-Hayward echoes Farage’s insistence that UKIP is now a major political force: “Eastleigh does mean we are no longer seen as a fringe party. Results like this show that it’s acceptable to vote UKIP, that we can challenge for seats. That’s not just a protest vote, it’s a vote coming from across the spectrum. We have two or three new members joining in Scotland every day, just now. That’s another thousand in a year.”
These new claimed members are not, says Scott-Hayward, disaffected rural Tories, but Scots from across the country, rural and urban. “We have members joining in Glasgow, in Edinburgh, as well as in Dumfriesshire, Argyll and Bute… we’re gaining numbers and we have an opportunity to turn that into electoral success. The Scottish Parliament list system can only help.”
This is hardly unexpected fighting talk from a man whose party has just had a major lift, but a Labour MP raises a word of caution for Scots politicians who’d write off UKIP success north of the Border.
“I saw them starting out down south and they seemed like a joke. They still seem like a joke, but at the same time they’ve been building support.
“They have a tougher job in Scotland, I’m sure of that. But I never thought they’d get MEPs or councillors in England, and they have. We need to talk about immigration more anyway, because it matters to people, but if we don’t, we’ll let UKIP do it instead. I’d rather it was us leading that discussion in Scotland than them.
“If we don’t take them a little bit seriously, we might end up feeling pretty stupid if they take one or two list seats in 2016.”
That might not represent a “seismic shift”, as Diane James would have it, but it could mean the difference between whether Labour or the SNP leads the next Scottish Government.
“I can’t say it enough,” says that Labour MP. “We can’t treat them as irrelevant up until the point they’re sitting in Holyrood in seats we should have won.” «