The Eastleigh result asks two questions: is there a 'centre-ground' in British politics? And is politics in this country returning to business as usual? The result seems to suggest otherwise. It suggests that duopoly politics in our kingdom is decisively broken, and that voters are increasingly ready to vote for parties that are not scrabbling to show their credentials in the Westminster village. For UKIP came second in Eastleigh, defying pollsters, and pushing the Prime Minister's party into a humiliating 3rd place.
The Tory fantasy has been that by focussing on Europe they could neutralise UKIP. The opposite is true. As anyone with a decent understanding of framing knows, by stoking interest in the opposition's issues, one stokes support for them too. Every time the Tories talk about Europe, no matter what they say, they increase UKIP support. In particular, promising an in-out referendum on the EU certainly increased the basic 'salience' of UKIP. We now have a hard-right Party, whose positions are in no way seeking to appeal to 'the centre ground' and which deliberately positions itself outside the 'mainstream' on most issues, apparently within shooting distance of an MP.
Furthermore, in Eastleigh, the Tories had about the most UKIP-ish candidate imaginable, in Maria Hutchings. This too, of course, didn't help them. For in the choice between UKIP and UKIP-lite, which do you think voters are likely to go for? So Hutchings probably gained the Tories approximately zero votes, while losing them a bunch of votes to the LibDems.
Those from parties that are not the big three, such as the Green Party, can take some considerably heart from the result - the number of voters prepared to vote outside the big three goes ever up. Confirming the analysis I undertook here, some months ago. And, more crucially still, British voters are actively looking for an alternative to politics as usual. In Eastleigh, they went UKIP. In quite a number of places in England now, they tend to go Green. In Scotland, they frequently of course go SNP. It is less and less true that our country fits into the duopoly model so tragically encoded into 'first past the post'.
But the result also suggests that it is high time that the media turned their spotlight onto UKIP's seamier side. The electorate needs to know that UKIP are climate-change deniers; that a not-insignificant number of their MEPs (especially those that haven't already left UKIP, at least voluntarily!) past and present have confessed to or been found guilty of criminal acts; that they favour untrammelled free trade and new free trade agreements especially across the Atlantic, making us essentially the 51st state (the UK Dependent-on-America Party?); and that their policy platforms are out of sync with mainstream thinking in this country (especially perhaps in their reactionary social conservatism). Here are some of the ways one might seek to show this (thanks to Jonathan Kent for these ideas):
Health: UKIP like private models and say they’re looking to places like the Netherlands (mandatory health insurance so less well off get hit hardest for extra payments) or Australia (part privatised financed by extra 1.5% on income tax). So UKIP want to make you pay more and rely on private healthcare. Vote UKIP, and say goodbye to the NHS.
Education: UKIP want to give parents education vouchers. The wealthy get subsidised to send their children to private schools (with a £3000 voucher you’ll still need an extra £7000 per year per child for a private school), so anyone who can’t fund the difference will be stuck with schools UKIP claims are no good. UKIP: privatising education for the benefit of at most the better-off. Vote UKIP if you want to undermine public education in this country.
Welfare: Anyone on any benefit – even vis-a-vis housing or council tax – faces compulsory welfare work schemes. UKIP: welcoming millions to the chain gang.
UKIP's 28% vote in Eastleigh means that they aren't entitled to be treated as a fun sideshow any more. They need to be severely scrutinised now, as the Libdems were in the final run-up to the last general election (a scrutiny which put an end to Cleggmania). The British people need to know what they are voting for if they take their 'none of the above' vote and lend it to UKIP.