BY ANY standards, the UK Independence Party’s victory in the Rochester and Strood by-election is a significant political event – but perhaps not for the reasons that followers of Nigel Farage might imagine.
Ukip may well go on to draw more votes from the main UK parties in the election next May and secure more seats at Westminster. But it is unlikely to be as significant a “third force” in UK politics as the SNP, still less a party of government.
That is not to say this by-election result was without resonance. It is very resonant indeed for what it tells us about the strength of the anti-mainstream protest vote and the damage that Ukip is inflicting, not only on the Conservatives, but also on Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it is the collapse of the Lib Dem vote – down to a derisory 349 and well beaten by the Green Party – that is arguably the most dramatic feature of the result. This is a devastating verdict on a party that continues to enjoy considerable media attention and whose leader is the Deputy Prime Minister. Now it is in massive trouble. For years, the Lib Dems have been the natural harvesters of by-election protest votes. Now it is part and parcel of the very system from which many now feel disengaged.
The signal this sends to its supporters elsewhere is that the party looks to be finished as a political force, an impression its leader Nick Clegg may now find very difficult indeed to counter as the faithful throw in the towel.
Labour has also been badly wounded. It looked set for a mediocre result even before the offending “image from Rochester” tweet by shadow attorney-general Emily Thornberry showing a Rochester house with St George’s flags and a white van outside. This put-down of a working class, traditional Labour household added to the impression of a party in the grip of a metropolitan liberal elite out of touch with its traditional supporters. Ms Thornberry has quit her shadow cabinet post. But it serves as a stark example of how comprehensively Labour has lost its way and the confusion that brings.
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It may seem the Conservatives got off lightly. The margin of Ukip’s victory was smaller than had been predicted. But having promised to “throw the kitchen sink” at trying to retain the seat for the Conservatives, David Cameron has suffered another blow. His European policy holds little credibility, and even if no other Conservative MP defects, many of the party’s supporters will continue to do so.
The troubling conclusion of all this is that the UK is heading not just towards a hung parliament next year but a parliament where two notably disaffected groups – Ukip and the larger SNP – lack the capacity to govern but have the power to frustrate and spoil government by other parties. Bearing in mind the massive deficit and debt pressures with which a new administration will be confronted, that could be a most troubling and unstable outcome.
High-speed rail line must come north
In recent months, a powerful consensus has strengthened – south and north of the Border – that spending on infrastructure projects should be less London-centred and distributed more evenly across the UK. A recurring feature of the independence referendum campaign was that the south of the country benefited disproportionately. Many, including the Scottish Government, supported calls for the High Speed 2 rail line to be extended to Scotland.
But this, according to Sir David Higgins, the head of the project, now looks unlikely. He talks of “a range of options” that would be presented to the UK government next month and describes a new line as “ambitious”.
Given the public debt mountain, the £43 billion cost of the project and the vocal opposition of environmentalists to plans for the first-phase London-to-the-Midlands stretch of the high-speed rail link, the initial stage could well be considered equally “ambitious”.
This notwithstanding, the macro-economic case for an extension of the line to Scotland is compelling. And politically it is one major issue on which unionist parties and the SNP can agree. We do need at the very least a major upgrade and improvement programme for our rail network, given the substantial increase in rail passenger journeys in recent years and the need to build and sustain high-quality infrastructure if our economy is to remain competitive.
For the Scottish Government, the presentation of a powerful case for the extension of the line to Scotland must be a priority. It is imperative that Scotland gets its share of improvement to the UK’s rail network and the economic benefits that would bring.
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