Saturday, 5 March 2011

Bad Night in Barnsley...but for Who ?

Those elements of the media and the blogsphere who have nothing but an irrational dislike bordering on hatred for the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg have had a field day in the past 48 hours since the declaration of the Barnsley Central by-election.

Let's be honest, finishing sixth in a by-election is nothing of which to be proud though it happened to the Liberal Democrats in Hamilton South back in 1999. It didn't end the party then and this result won't either. The world is of course a different place - back then, the Liberal Democrats had 46 seats and Labour had 419. It didn't matter.

Now, the Liberal Democrats are in Government and there to be kicked the same way the Party used to kick both the Conservative and Labour parties before the Coalition.

The loathing for Clegg on the left and from the anti-Coalition Right is as tedious as it is vacuous - the former are angry because the Lib Dems had the audacity NOT to go into Government with Labour while the latter believe the Coalition is destroying their beloved Right-wing unpleasant unelectable Conservative Party by dragging it to some (as they see it) mushy soft liberal centre.

One of the Coalition parties has done badly and has been lambasted but what of the other partner ? The Conservatives didn't do well in Oldham East & Saddleworth but that could be excused. This was a much more worrying and disturbing result for them as UKIP has threatened to do what no other party has been able to do and establish itself as a serious and credible rival on the Right or centre-Right flank. Indeed, many of UKIP's leading activists and supporters are or were former Conservatives.

However, while it might be possible to argue that UKIP could be a potent challenger in a Conservative-held seat, it seemed much less so in a seat like Barnsley. The answer is that UKIP has become what the Liberal Democrats were - a repository for protest voters who cannot stomach voting for the main opposition party, in this case, Labour. The salient lesson from this is that those protest voters usually returned back to the "home" party at a General Election.

If UKIP is destined to become nothing more than a place of protest for disillusioned ex-Tories and ex-Liberal Democrats, then the other parties have little or nothing to worry about. The real threat to the Conservatives would be for UKIP to establish itself as more conservative than the Conservatives and that just doesn't mean being more Eurosceptic than David Cameron but also being more severe on public spending and more in favour of tax cuts as well as adopting more socially conservative positions. This could lose them support from disaffected Lib Dems but that would be more than compensated by the threat they would pose to David Cameron.

Barnsley has little short-term or even long-term significance as it stands. The battered Conservatives and Liberal Democrats know that IF the Coalition is seen to have delivered economic and social renewal by 2015, both parties will be rewarded. Labour must also know that making hay in this kind of environment is easy - the test will come when it has to prevent itself as an alternative Government.

For UKIP, the question is whether it wants to achieve short-term success by being the new "party of protest" safe in the knowledge that will mean long-term failure or whether it will see the opportunity to establish itself as a potent challenger on the Right and centre-Right. Were that strategy to be successful, the potential dividends could be enormous.

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