The rise of Ukip shows how much the electorate is in a wild, irrational mood – and the main parties can’t really deal with it, says John McTernan
Chatham Dockyard has a historic heritage. Since the 15th century it has been central to the defence of England, Britain and the UK. It has built over 500 ships, and at its peak employed 10,000 workers. A hub of innovation, engineering and employment. No wonder its closure is a central issue in the Rochester and Strood by-election which was caused by the defection of the marvellously named Mark Reckless from the Tory Party to Ukip, and his subsequent resignation.
The thing is, Chatham wasn’t closed 30 days ago by David Cameron but 30 years ago by Margaret Thatcher. The grievances that are driving voters are well beyond traditional alienation from politics as practised by the current elite. We are through the looking glass when voters want to use a by-election in the 21st century to re-litigate the 1980s.
No wonder Labour and Tory politicians wandered round their respective conferences with a dazed and confused look. From junior woodchuck to grizzled greybeard, nothing in their experience had prepared them for this. It’s not just the left-field nature of the grievances, it’s the fact that no traditional political techniques seem to have any effect at all. Tell voters in Clacton that Douglas Carswell, their Tory MP turned Ukip candidate, wants to privatise the National Health Service and halve welfare spending and they just don’t care. It’s as bewildering as Buffy discovering that stakes, crucifixes and sunshine have no effect on vampires.
This is not in the least academic for either party. Yesterday’s by-election is merely the entrée for the Tories. The Rochester and Strood poll follows hot on its heels. What looked like a simpler contest for Cameron – more commuters, fewer pensioners – started to look scarier when a poll by Lord Ascroft gave Ukip a nine-point lead. It’s like snakes on a plane – a threat wherever you turn.
For Labour it’s no better. Their traditional working-class vote in the North-west of England has long been a target for Ukip. The Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election was just at the start of the recent rise of Ukip, so Labour escaped without a scare.
Heywood and Middleton, though, is different. For a start, the combined right-wing vote – Tories, Ukip and BNP – at the last election was nearly the same as the Labour vote. Worse, it borders on Rochdale – an area in which there was a serious sexual abuse case involving young girls in care being groomed and raped by gangs.
Race was not the cause of these crimes but Ukip have been quick to point out the rapists and abusers were Asian and the girls mainly white working-class. All of it, in Ukip’s eyes, the fault of Labour.
This is toxic – and the failure is real. The politicians and professionals betrayed the young women, feeding an anti-establishment mood. Worse by far for Labour is the forthcoming by-election for the Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire. There, in Rotherham, a massive abuse of young women has been uncovered. The crimes are appalling.
The institutional failure is systemic. The politics only go one way. Ukip won nearly half the vote in Rotherham in the May local elections. And they have a real issue – the catastrophic failure of public authorities. Labour are treating this as seriously as any parliamentary by-election.
This is the brutal reality of life for Labour and the Tories. They face a foe fuelled equally by real and imaginary grievances. An enemy that is never asked for consistent answers. One that is able to look left on some issues and right on others. And nimble enough, and trusted enough by voters, to hold contradictory positions that would be unsustainable for one of the mainstream parties.
At this point, Scots would be forgiven for thinking that they have been here already. A large part of the fuel for the Yes campaign was a collective sense of grievance about the Thatcher years. No matter that her era is long gone, and her policies dead and buried. There still remains a wound that is unhealed. It may look ludicrous to vote Ukip because of a 30-year-old decision to close a dockyard, but it’s no more ludicrous voting Yes to avoid a poll tax that was abolished over 20 years ago.
What is being fought by Ukip is a culture war. Like the independence campaign, it is not simply a rerun of the failed, socially conservative, culture wars of the 1980s – the homophobic, racist, anti-feminist, saloon bar politics of that time. It is an inversion of those politics.
It has often been observed that the Left won the Sixties - in terms of equalities and social issues - and that the Right won the 1980s – in terms of economic management. All true. As is the fact that no political party represent what mainstream voters really want – a socially liberal party that is also economically liberal.
What has been less noted is that while these issues form the common sense of the leadership class in UK politics, there remains a substantial minority of voters who have not accepted this settlement. As the support for the two main parties combined has fallen below 70 per cent, and sometimes below 65 per cent, the minority has gained a more powerful voice. What is being rejected by substantial numbers – on both Left and Right, in both England and Scotland – is the economic, not the social, settlement.
This is the hardest challenge for the Labour and Conservative parties. Each in their own way has made a long and hard journey to policies that recognise the economics of globalisation and what that requires as a response – education, high skills, membership of a large free trade area, free movement of capital and labour to match free movement of goods and services. Cabinet ministers and shadow ministers alike believe in this model. However, until they can convince the voters, in a lasting way, that this is right, then mainstream parties will face the disruptive and increasingly successful challenge of insurgent parties.