Ukip’s challenge gathers momentum with by-election wins which heap pressures on Conservatives and Labour

 

Further evidence of the unsettled nature of British politics emerged last week from the by-elections won by the UK Independence Party (Ukip) from the Conservatives in Clacton and in Heywood and Middleton where Labour just held a previously safe seat from a Ukip candidate. These are highly disquieting results for the two main parties, which will be further tested in a more significant by-election next month in Rochester and Strood. Along with the rapid decline of support for the Liberal Democrats and the expected challenge of the Scottish National Party to Labour’s dominance of Scottish seats they herald a possible stalemated general election next May.

The emergent issues highlighted by Ukip look set to dominate British politics through the general election and beyond it. The party is best known for its demand that the UK should leave the European Union. It has succeeded with the Clacton victory in further forcing this demand on the Conservative party, influencing its Eurosceptic wing to strengthen calls for the referendum on EU membership to be held in 2017. Competition between the two parties will be intensified on the reforms demanded in the Conservative manifesto if the UK is to remain a member. These have already become unrealistic and look like becoming more so.

Underlying Ukip’s appeal is its hostility to immigration, which has become more and more explicit in its programme. Many older, white, working class men respond disproportionately to its call that immigrants be refused entry to protect employment and values, notwithstanding all the evidence that the wider British society benefits from it – both incoming and outgoing. This is a rapidly developing situation and Ukip is no temporary flash protest party. It could eventually catalyse a split in the Conservatives on EU membership, open borders and immigration controls.

Such a realignment of British politics would endanger the UK itself if it led to a withdrawal from the EU against the wishes of Scottish voters who would not accept that.