The Rochester and Strood by-election showed us why ‘alternative’ parties are gaining support

By Bill Lytton

The Rochester and Strood by-election delivered more than a second Ukip MP last week. In fact, the incumbency of former Conservative Mark Reckless was backseat news to other, more telling, political situations. Namely that, in Alberto Nardelli’s words, “Britain has gone from a two-three party system to a six party system,” and that Labour’s very infrastructure is deteriorating.

Embarrassment abounded following Ukip’s 2,920 vote majority win. The UK Independence Party scored 42 per cent of the vote, ousting a former Tory safe seat. Labour performed poorly, securing only 17 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats only managed 349 votes overall – a vote share of 0.9 per cent. They fell behind the Greens with a 4.2 per cent share and lagged in company with the Monster Raving Loony Party’s candidate: Hairy Knorm Davidson.

The results show a 28.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Ukip – complete with the potential for further Tory defections. But, the results of the by-election are more than a singular vignette of political process; they provide the outline for a wider political sketch.

The two major parties – Labour and the Conservatives – are losing momentum to ‘alternatives’ – of which Ukip has shown to be the front-runner. Fragmentation among the electorate is evident; preference for the two main parties has been in decline since 1979. At one point they maintained 81 per cent of the vote share, but as of 2010 they procured only 61 per cent. This trend of decline will inevitably continue. The ‘alternatives’ – Ukip, the Greens, and the Scottish National Party – once held six per cent of the vote collectively, but are now polling at above 25 per cent in voting intention.

The “six-party system” is a consequence of a disillusioned electorate. There’s no doubt that Ukip have stapled support from this angle. As Nigel Farage writes in the Express: “It’s not just Mark Reckless and Ukip that won the Rochester and Strood by-election… everyone who is sick of the political status quo won.”

And for many, one of the by-election’s great blunders exemplified his stance. In arguably the biggest moment of the whole episode; Labour MP Emily Thornberry announced her resignation from the shadow cabinet following a Tweet that was “condescending and disrespectful”, to quote Labour’s Rachel Reeves (whom incidentally backed her leaving the cabinet).

The incriminating tweet – still the subject of much analytical fallout – was taken while Thornberry was campaigning for Labour in Rochester. Under the title “Image from Rochester,” was the depiction of a house-front draped in three St. George’s flags, complete with parked white van. Miliband had “never been angrier,” and her ‘resignation’ was made clear to him in one of two meetings over the matter.

For many, this is further evidence of the out-of-touch Labour that Ukip likes to proclaim. Much derision was levied at both Thornberry and the party following the Tweet. Responses, in-line with the following, were posted on Twitter: “Somebody flies England flags and drives a van? And Labour wonder [sic] why the working class are deserting them en-masse.”

Enter Ed Miliband’s political nightmare. Following a month of grim polling – which led to public and inter-party questioning of his leadership – Ed’s been trying to rouse much-needed support. In his leadership speech on 13 November at the University of London, he aimed to reassure the public, and his own party members, that he can carry the election; that he’s the man to represent working Britain. No doubt then that Thornberry’s tweet – or van-gate to coin a term – undermined every sentence of that speech.

Ed told reporters: “I was angry because I thought her tweet gave a misleading impression, when she photographed the house in which the family lived, that somehow Labour had the wrong view of that family,” adding, “Labour’s never had that view of disrespect. I’m afraid her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect.”

Defending, or even building, his man-of-the-people image, Ed needed this moment to appear both resilient and resolute. Apparently, ‘resignation’ is political-PR-speak for ‘sacked’. And it’s this which, to the glee of Labour’s opposition, has led to rife in-fighting among the party and much public mire. This scene is best described by Sky New’s political editor Faisal Islam: “This is not shooting yourself in the foot… This is amputating your leg because you slightly stubbed your toe.”

Writing in the Telegraph, London mayor Boris Johnson, like Islam, opines that the overblown handling of the situation has in fact become the situation. He writes: “It was an entirely run-of-the-mill English townscape, with some straightforward words to go with it. There was no obvious insult, no abuse, no overt sneering,” adding that Ed’s response to the matter is a consummate reflection of his leadership; that he panics under pressure and that he doesn’t think straight.

Boris was right in saying that this  could have been avoided. Serving as a sort-of social Rorschach test, the image was neutrally titled: “Image from Rochester.” There’s little doubt that had it come from Nigel Farage, or the Ukip incumbent, that it would have been received differently, even favourably – an image embodying the spirit of Ukip’s national pride.

But that didn’t happen. And with support for the two main parties dissolving, these moments will only build support for an increasingly alternative-seeking electorate. Not only that, but it conveys the message to Labour’s opposition that a successful campaign against them is a political war of attrition – wearing them down to the point of collapse. And it’s working.

Labour’s lack of internal strength, its crumbling architecture, will be their downfall. They could learn from Ukip – a party steadily gaining support in spite of various and frequent discriminatory blunders. They’ve survived Godfrey Bloom’s “bongo bongo land”; gay rain-blaming; Farage’s desire to ban HIV-infected migrants; and allying with holocaust-deniers in the European Parliament. That’s to name a few specific cases among the wealth of sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks.

Rochester and Strood illustrated how perceptive the public is to parties that lack cohesion. Increasingly divided in opinion, the electorate is looking elsewhere for political allegiance, so much so that parties like Ukip – despite their track record – gain heavy support. Maybe it’s the clarity of their unity as a party? Justifiable when compared with Labour; rife with internal disputes, crises and an oft-questioned leader. Or even the Conservatives, having faced multiple defections and possibly more in the future. It’s no surprise that people are tiring of the two main parties and seeking new resolutions.

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