(Originally published on The Evans Review 25/10/14)
On the 9th of October, UKIP won its first seat in the House of Commons as Douglas Carswell swept to victory in the Clacton by-election. Like it or lump it, this changes everything and the Westminster establishment must wake up to the very real threat posed by Nigel Farage’s leadership.
One seat in parliament may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things but it matters a great deal to UKIP. They now have the chance to quiz David Cameron in the weekly Prime Minister’s questions, instigate debates and table amendments in parliament. The party will also get access to state funding. MPs are paid by the state to run offices and staff while political parties with a proven electoral record are due more funds than those without. Carswell’s victory in Clacton is therefore a political and financial coup for UKIP.
Electoral success has given UKIP a platform within the inner sanctums of British politics. It has provided an opportunity to challenge the three main parties and accrue some much-needed funds. Perhaps more importantly, the party has moved into the political mainstream. The idea that a UKIP vote is a wasted protest vote has been one of the biggest challenges to the success of the party. David Cameron’s jibe that Tory voters tempted to vote UKIP might risk ‘going to bed with Nigel Farage and waking up with Ed Miliband’ is certainly punchy. It could still prove to be savvy electioneering on the part of the Prime Minister but Farage now has a concrete example of a constituency where the party’s voters have got what they voted for.
Nigel Farage has even been invited to take part in a TV debate alongside the three main party leaders ahead of next year’s general election. Amid criticism of the proposals from The Green Party, broadcasters explained that UKIP’s inclusion was due to ‘changes in the political landscape’ since the last televised debates. This is a fair point but the omission of The Green Party does seem unfair considering they have occupied a seat in Westminster for over four years rather than just a few weeks. This level of inconsistency is, unfortunately, something to be expected in the modern political climate but UKIP’s inclusion does highlight how much ground has been gained. Farage has rattled the right cages at the right time.
A lot of UKIP’s success recently has come as a result of its alternative image. Nigel Farage has very deliberately portrayed himself as a Westminster outsider, brilliantly playing on the public disillusionment towards the three main parties. With electoral success this position immediately becomes harder to maintain. Every step UKIP takes towards the political mainstream is a step away from its status as the insurgent outsider. Additionally, UKIP is now big enough to become divided. The potential for disagreement over policy between Douglas Carswell as a local MP and his nationally minded party is huge and could undermine the leadership.
Nevertheless, the Clacton result is immensely significant. It is an opportunity for the party to portray itself as a legitimate alternative to the mainstream, not a protest vote but a genuine contender in the struggle for political power. The result is also a continuation of the momentum gained after their European election successes earlier in the year. With the Rochester and Strood by-election looming and another Tory defector, Mark Reckless, standing for UKIP, the party could have two MPs before next year’s election. Political momentum is hugely important at this stage in the electoral cycle and no-one can deny that, right now, UKIP has it.