John Harris

Journalist & Author

With Ukip’s surge, do we still have a progressive majority? | John Harris

The party’s success may not mean victory for the hang ‘em, flog ‘em brigade but it does show the huge distrust in our politicians

There was a nice poetry in the 12 hours between the arrival of the Leveson report and the results of Thursday’s three byelections. In the Commons and in the media, commentators and politicians got themselves in a lather about matters that were undoubtedly important, but not exactly uppermost in the public mind. And then, from Rotherham in particular, there came news that – in the midst of the chatter about crossing Rubicons and the like – still feels underplayed. So let us begin by stating the obvious: as signs of the popular mood, Thursday’s results were both fascinating and important. And here’s why.

First, we should marvel at the fate of the Lib Dems. In Croydon North at the last election they got 7,226 votes, a 14% share of the poll; on Thursday they shrunk to 860 votes, a 3.5% share. In Middlesbrough, things were not quite so grim: the Lib Dems’ share fell from 20% to 9.9%, and finished behind Ukip. But in Rotherham, “meltdown” seemed too kind a word. Nick Clegg always suggests a naive member of the officer class, with his troops cast as Tommies sleepwalking into a hail of enemy fire. But if what happened in South Yorkshire doesn’t shake them awake, nothing will. When you finish eighth in a byelection on 451 votes, behind a local vicar and self-styled “White Knight”, where are you?

In all but their strongest redoubts – bits of the deep West Country, perhaps – they are effectively over, for at least a generation. Activists are switching off; their councillor base is shrivelling; their time-honoured model of pavement politics is increasingly impossible. And just to give their fate the decisive ring of tragedy, even if they finally panic, the very understandable wish to postpone death will keep them in the coalition, to the presumably bitter end.

It is one of the more surreal aspects of modern politics that their place as a receptacle for English protest votes seems to have been usurped by a motley gang who look like their polar opposites: a catch-all nasty party, as opposed to what was once a byword for fuzzy niceness. In Rotherham, Ukip’s 22% share was seemingly built from the votes of not just disaffected Tories, but Labour supporters who would not have otherwise bothered to vote. The idea that Ukip is a clique of Southern free-marketeers has been sloughed off: as one blogger on the Daily Telegraph put it yesterday, “the populist revolt is bigger and wider than many anticipated”.

It certainly is, and what that denotes is unprecedented. Imagine if, instead of such marginal sects as the Socialist Alliance and the Respect Coalition (whose showings in two of these byelections suggest that George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West was a one-off), Tony Blair had been menaced throughout his time in office by a popular, well-run force pledged to put jump-leads on the Labour thinking he had come to kill off. This is what David Cameron now faces, and even if you can set your watch by Ukip candidates sounding off in very unpleasant ways about such issues as gay adoption and how Anders Breivik might have said a few sensible things about political correctness, it does not look set to go away.

That the Tories will soon offer an in-out referendum on the EU and give full vent to their rising passion for withdrawal is surely a racing certainty. Moreover, with each Ukip advance, one senses another justification for the Tories to write off “modernisation” as a moment of weakness, and go back to post-Thatcher first principles (for the details of what that might mean in practice, read Britannia Unchained, the treatise on a possible future of 60-hour weeks and deregulated everything, written by five up and coming Tory MPs). In other words, Ukip’s success is manifested not just in byelection results and column inches devoted to the party itself, but in the sense that, with both jangled nerves and a palpable relief, the Conservatives are reverting to type.

Labour held Rotherham, and kept Middlesbrough and Croydon North, the latter two on increased shares of the vote. But they should also worry, not just about the poor turnouts that marked both this week’s and the three byelection contests two weeks ago but about what the Ukip effect might mean for them. Until Clegg and his gang pushed the Lib Dems towards calamity, people who cleaved to a leftish view of the world could add together Labour and Lib Dem votes, and harp on about that fragile and possibly chimerical entity known as “the progressive majority”. But the rise of Ukip looks to me to be legitimising a very different view, in which the average English person will be characterised as an avowed Eurosceptic, a fierce opponent of immigration, a hang-’em-and-flog-’em merchant, and a hater of government.

In fact, Ukip’s success is no more an endorsement of Nigel Farage’s weird stew of nostalgia and turbo-Thatcherism than Cleggmania was for the detailed policy positions of the Lib Dems, but rather an indication of surging national mistrust of the mesh of politicians and vested interests that the great Englishman William Cobbett termed “the thing”. But that is a point that will be lost, and for Ed Miliband in particular this spells trouble. Both inside and outside Labour, plenty of people will use the idea of a deep well of rightwing populism against him, and it will take more than the broken machinery of the Labour Party to make any real headway.

Over the last two years, each time events have pointed to a Britain moving beyond three-party British politics, voices have predictably piped up claiming that normal service will soon be resumed. But that view is running out of road. In Scotland, Labour is still reeling from being routed by a nationalist party which is about to stage a referendum on independence. The Tories are all but extinct north of the border, with the Lib Dems probably not far behind (witness a council result in the council ward of Edinburgh Pentland last May, where they were beaten by Professor Pongoo, a man in a penguin suit).

This month’s English and Welsh police and crime commissioner elections were characterised by two themes: their appalling organisation and vapid tenor of debate, for sure, but also victory for 12 people with no party ties. Bristol was the only city to vote in favour of an elected mayor and is now run by an independent. The share of opinion polls given to “others” is at an all-time high; it is not long since we were gripped by panic about the BNP. Only in Wales does something resembling political orthodoxy seem to be holding; but then again, it is not that long since Plaid Cymru was temporarily booting Labour out of some of its post-industrial heartlands.

We have another compelling development: a revolt on the English right, and the demise of a party that only two years ago was toasting its arrival at last in government. “Politics is changing,” said the dependably mischievous Nigel Farage yesterday. As he well knows, that’s definitely the understatement of the year. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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