It is far from clear how much of Carswell's victory was due to his personal popularity - by all accounts he had 15,000 personal pledges of support - and how much was due to support for UKIP. But another by-election on the same day, in the Heywood & Middleton constituency in Rochdale, suggests that rising support for UKIP, or perhaps more accurately falling support for the main parties, might have been a considerable factor. In Heywood & Middleton, Labour barely scraped back in. They won with a margin of only 617 votes - with UKIP in second place. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems were trounced.
Meanwhile, across the Thames from Clacton, the constituency of Rochester & Strood - where I live - is preparing for its own by-election after the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP. Like Carswell, Reckless has resigned his Westminster seat and is standing for UKIP in the by-election: the candidate selected by UKIP to stand in the 2015 general election, Dr. Mark Hanson, generously stood aside to make way for Reckless. Reckless does not have the personal popularity of Carswell, but North Kent is among the most Eurosceptic places in Britain:
(heat map h/t @MineForNothing)
It is therefore quite possible that Reckless will win. A recent Survation poll showed UKIP support up by 40% at the expense of the other main parties;
Survation for Mail on Sunday. Rochester & Strood Headline voting: CON 31% (-18), LAB 25% (-3), LD 2% (-14), UKIP 40% (+40), OTHER 1% (-5)The local Conservatives in Rochester & Strood are worried. They are already on the campaign trail. Yesterday, they rang me. Ostensibly this was to find out about the local and national issues that most concerned me, but really it was to find out my voting intentions both for this by-election and for the general election. I refused to be drawn on my voting intentions for the main parties. But I did say I would not be voting for UKIP. And in this post, I want to explain why.
— Survation (@Survation) October 4, 2014
Firstly, let me make it clear that my refusal to vote for UKIP does not indicate support for the main parties. I am unimpressed with all of them, and utterly sick of the deficit mania that is gripping politicians and media. The Conservatives need to realise that their figures don't add up: the Liberal Democrats need to be reminded that the deficit is not the economy: and Ed Balls needs to remember that he once knew some economics. The tax and spending proposals of all three parties demonstrate either total ignorance of the reasons why the UK's fiscal deficit is not reducing as planned, or - more likely - wilful ignoring of the truth for political reasons.
Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation, a rare voice of sanity, reminds us that what politicians say before an election and what they do afterwards are often - thankfully - very different things:
And let’s not forget that fiscal timetables tend to be malleable. Regardless of anything that gets pledged pre-election, don’t be surprised if greater pragmatism emerges afterwards.And he suggests that the bleak picture painted by all three parties in response to the deficit panic may, after the election, give way to something rather rosier:
It’s possible to sketch out a picture of the next Parliament that is less gruesome than we might think. Steady, job-rich GDP growth. The eventual resumption of pay rises as unemployment continues to fall. A very slow and gradual path of interest rate increases following rises in living standards, assisted by stable inflation and a housing market tamed by tougher regulation rather than the need for higher mortgage rates. And a timetable for chipping away at the deficit that extends over the parliament.I'd buy that. But sadly no party is offering it. Until one of them does, I am firmly on the fence. For the first time in my adult life, I am faced with the prospect of being disenfranchised at the forthcoming election because I cannot agree with the policies of any of the main political parties.
And this brings me to UKIP. Many people are fleeing to UKIP (and to a lesser extent the Greens) because they reject the policies of the main political parties. But this is like a rebound relationship: it is founded on disappointment in old love rather than discovery of new love. Many of them would return to the main parties if the policies were changed. The problem is HOW they would need to be changed in order to attract them back.
One of the less welcome effects of prolonged economic difficulties is the rise of nationalism. We are seeing it all across Europe at the moment. You would think it would be most prevalent in the most deeply depressed countries. But that's not the case. The most vociferous nationalist movements are actually in countries that are not (yet) depressed. And this is because people resort to nationalism as a way of hanging on to what they have when they feel it is under threat.
UKIP is a nationalist party. It appeals to people who want "Britain for the British". People who, like my partner, resent the fact that national utilities and large businesses are owned by "foreigners". People who, like the friend who came to see me yesterday, believe that people are coming into this country to freeload on the NHS (but forget about the Club Med Britons, many of them elderly, who "freeload" on the health services of Southern European countries). People who believe that immigrants are costing the country money in benefits, when in fact immigrants are net contributors to the fiscal purse. People who believe that we should "shut the doors" to prevent "foreigners" coming in, taking our jobs and our houses, sponging off our benefits and our health service, breeding like rabbits and crowding out the "indigenous British". Where I live, a lot of people think like this. And since the financial crisis, more people have turned to this sort of nationalistic thinking. UKIP's message is reassuring for people who feel threatened: "This country is ours and we aren't going to share it with anyone". I sympathise, but I believe they are wrong.
Balkanisation doesn't create prosperity (if you don't believe this, just look at the Balkan economies). Sharing is what makes the world prosperous. Immigration benefits both the immigrants and the country that receives them: it may also benefit the sending country, if migrants remit funds to their families left behind. It is an effective way of improving the prosperity of everyone. The UK's high immigration level has, on balance, benefited it. Yes, there are always people who lose out: it is no accident that the most anti-immigration parts of the UK are areas with high unemployment and areas where local services have been put under strain by high levels of immigration. But this is a matter for fiscal policy to resolve. It is not a reason to close the doors.
UKIP is not only anti-immigration, it is also anti-EU. But membership of the EU has, on balance, benefited the UK. Just as I felt the Scots were wrong to seek to leave a successful union, I feel equally strongly that Britain would be wrong to leave the EU, even though by many measures it is less successful a union than the UK and is seriously threatened by the sheer idiocy of European politicians. The EU needs reform, not rejection. The UK has been instrumental in reforming the EU before and it can, and in my view should, do it again. Counting ourselves out, when we have such extensive trade and business links with the rest of the EU, would be madness.
In any sharing arrangement, however mutually beneficial, people tend to notice what they have to give up more than what they gain. When times are good, they tolerate this, though they may grumble. But when times are hard, people become resentful of giving up to others what they consider to be rightfully theirs. And they start to blame those others for their current difficulties. This is what drives nationalism. At its extreme, it destroys families, friendships and communities. It sets neighbour against neighbour, community against community, country against country. It is fundamentally destructive and it should be resisted, not welcomed.
This is why I will not vote for UKIP.