Why Labour should be worried about Clacton

Anindya Bhattacharyya analyses UKIP’s success in Thursday’s two by-elections.

Clapton pier
Photo: Steve Calcott, flickr

One of the peculiarities of mainstream political chatter is its tendency to seize on the unexpected and discount long-term predictable trends. The response to Thursday’s by-elections is a case in point: UKIP’s Douglas Carswell was expected to win in Clacton, so no surprises there, but the Heywood & Middleton vote was much closer than expected – cue much wailing about UKIP’s mortal threat in Labour heartlands.

What are we to make of all this? My take is that Labour didn’t do as badly in Heywood & Middleton as the current panic might suggest. UKIP does, however, pose a threat to Labour – but it is Clacton that best dramatises this, not Heywood. And underlying all the surface turmoil are certain deep trends that the radical left should pay close attention to.

What happened in Heywood & Middleton?

This seat in the north east of Greater Manchester came vacant with the death of Jim Dobbin. It was assumed to be “safe Labour”, yet UKIP came within a whisker of nabbing it, polling 39% to Labour’s 41%.

UKIP has trumpeted this as proof that they are attracting “Old Labour” voters and not just disaffected Tories. Labour politicians have echoed this with warnings that the party is neglecting its core vote. What this means exactly is less clear: for some it means a return to social democratic policies that help working class voters, for others it is code for pandering further to racist prejudices and unfounded fears about immigrants.

Turnout at the byelection was 36% as compared to 58% at the 2010 general election. This actually isn’t too bad for a by-election, and certainly better than some of the dismal turnouts for by-elections in 2012. But fewer people bothered voting, and we don’t know whether that abstention hit all parties equally or some more than others. My guess is that UKIP voters were probably keener to make their mark than Labour supporters.

In percentage terms however, Labour’s share rose slightly from 40% to 41%. This contrasts to the Tories, who fell from 27% to 12%, the Lib Dems, who fell from 23% to 5%, and the BNP, which polled 7% last time but didn’t stand this time round. The Greens, who didn’t stand in the general election, took 3% of the vote.


I drew the diagram on the right on Thursday night to make sense of these numbers. To my horror/joy it ended up going a bit “viral” on Twitter and attracting some entirely reasonable criticisms. So I should make clear that the red numbers in the diagram are speculative: they indicate abstract net flows plus some guesswork – they do not represent what any real voters really did. It is quite likely, for instance, that large numbers of Labour voters switched to UKIP but were balanced out by former Lib Dems switching to Labour to stop UKIP. These kind of “churn” effects can only be measured with proper empirical studies as opposed to 2a.m. doodles on my part.

Nevertheless I think this kind of simplified picture tells you something about the overall dynamics at work here. The truth is Heywood & Middleton was not a “safe Labour” seat – rather the right wing vote in the constituency was split between the Tories, Lib Dems, BNP and UKIP. What happened was UKIP consolidated that vote around a hard racist message: Labour doesn’t care about people like you, it only cares about the ethnic minorities, look at how they turned a blind eye to sexual abuse because of political correctness etc. Labour in contrast campaigned on an anti-UKIP ticket, warning their supporters that UKIP would take the seat if they didn’t turn out to vote. This shored it up enough to win on the night – despite the frightening consolidation on the right.

What happened in Clacton?

If we look at Clacton a rather different picture emerges. I mentioned in my analysis of the Euro elections that the polarisation in politics plays out unevenly: while areas like the North West saw spikes in both UKIP and Labour votes, areas like Essex and East Anglia are seeing a boost for UKIP but a much weaker rise in the Labour vote. And while the Labour vote share held up in Heywood & Middleton it collapsed in Clacton as voters of all colours rallied to Douglas Carswell’s libertarian spin on the UKIP agenda.


UKIP didn’t stand in 2010 but polled 60% at Thursday’s by-election. So we can get a feel for where this support might have come from by looking at the drops in the other parties’ vote shares (again with the caveats above about net figures, churn effects and so on). When we do that we see a 28 point fall in the Tory vote, a 14 point drop for Labour, 12 points for the Lib Dems and 5 points for the BNP (who stood in 2010 but not this time). This pie chart shows how the shares stack up. Turnout overall held up reasonably well, down from 64% at the general election to 51%.

The Clacton result was widely trailed as the perfect storm for UKIP – a popular local MP switching sides, combined with ideal demographics according to the profile of potential UKIP voters compiled by social scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. It is the most UKIP-friendly seat in the country according to their analysis, and it delivered an easy win for a rebranded Carswell. So it gives us a window into what happens to UKIP when they are at their strongest.

Part of this picture is similar to Heywood & Middleton: the Tories lose half their vote share, the Liberal Democrats just get smashed. But what is noticeable is that Labour failed to hold its share or act as any kind of a pole of attraction for anti-UKIP sentiment (which must exist, even in Clacton). Instead around half its vote share ended up in UKIP’s camp, just as with the Tories. Clacton is a situation where UKIP really did break out of its middle class base and eat into the working class Labour vote. It is a warning of what might happen elsewhere if UKIP’s rise is unchecked.

Bear in mind Labour came second in Clacton in 2010 with 25% of the vote. Its predecessor seat, Harwich, was held by Labour from 1997 to 2005. The constituency includes Jaywick, the most deprived area in England according to government statistics. Clacton’s elderly population might be more amenable to UKIP’s bigotry than the average citizen, but they should also be more amenable to Labour’s message on the NHS. There is no reason in principle why Labour did so badly in Clacton. The problem is decades of weak labour movement organisation in the South and East of England – compounded by a failure of nerve that looks set to be repeated in Rochester, where according to press reports Labour has already thrown in the towel.

What are the deep trends driving this turmoil?

To summarise: in the short term, things aren’t so bad for Labour. UKIP’s primary effect is to take chunks out of the Tory vote, which splits the right and works in Labour’s advantage. In the longer term, however, the problems start to pile up. As UKIP gets stronger it starts eating into the right of Labour’s vote. Labour’s likely response to this will be to announce that it is getting “tougher” on immigration – which only boosts the mindset that leads people to vote UKIP in the first place. A race to the bottom ensues.

The party could, of course, follow a different course, planting a flag in the ground for some basic social democratic ideals and rallying all those repelled by UKIP’s petty bigotry (and there are plenty of people repelled by it, which is why Farage is very careful around these subjects, picking exactly what to say and exactly when to say it). But this would involve a sharp turn left that would break with Labour’s past practice. Don’t hold your breath.

Sitting underneath all this are certain long-term trends that are worth noting. Britain’s electoral system is built around the assumption that there are two main parties and everyone votes for one of them. This assumption more or less held true in the decades after the Second World War. But it has been progressively getting weaker. Fewer people vote these days, and those that do are far more likely to vote for alternatives to Labour or the Tories. The Liberal Democrats benefited from this for many years until the political centre ground they were perched on collapsed. Now you see the rise of radical right formations like UKIP causing headaches for the Tories, or alternative social democratic parties like the SNP creating havoc for Labour north of the border. All of this turmoil is amplified by a first-past-the-post electoral system that tries to induce a binary choice from electoral behaviour that increasingly does not fit that model.

Related to and running alongside this longterm break-up of the two party system are the effects of neoliberal capitalism in its post-crisis austerity mode. Rising inequality looks like being a permanent feature of the system, which even right wing economists are beginning to get bothered by. The widening gulf between masses and elites creates problems for all political parties that rely on some kind of democratic legitimation. Ford and Goodwin characterise UKIP voters as the “left behind” – older, socially conservative, pessimistic about the future. But they aren’t the only ones to be disaffected by the political status quo. There is also, I’d wager, a “left out” constituency of younger workers with more progressive views on race, immigration, sexuality etc, people who are actively angry about the future rather than passively despondent. If there is any social base for a revival of the radical left, it will be here.

In the meantime there’s plenty of anti-UKIP campaigning on the ground to be getting on with. Some of this will work, some of this won’t. All these initiatives deserve support and critical analysis. But if we don’t start building a hardline anti-racist current in British society – one that defends migrants from mainstream attacks and not just those peddled by the likes of UKIP – the slide to the right will accelerate.


  1. Anyone watching the Farage program on BBC? Interesting allies – the Swedish Democrats who Farage claims have rejected its fascist past. The SD’s slogan, “Europe Belongs to Us”. Another ally, Lithuania’s Order and Justice Party whose MEP wore a chemical suit with the sign “Stop AIDS” in protest at a Gay Pride demo. Based on these associates it seems pretty clear that our strategy needs to expose the racist core of UKIP’s popularism and pull people away from that poison.

  2. Callinicos addressed your anti-politics theory in the ISJ recently. The point I’ve made is that it is just a theory and not a very helpful one in this case because it focuses on the anti-establishment side of populism without addressing the underlying and predominant racism that informs UKIP politics. It’s one thing to argue for a different strategy that we can test out but to offer no strategy at all is irresponsible.

    At no point did I equate UKIP with the BNP. I stated that they are not fascist but I compared your dismissive attitude to an anti-racist UKIP campaign to those on the left who argued that we should not alienate the populist element of the BNP vote by focusing on a single issue which in that case was fascism. It isn’t my fault that they and you appear to view these united fronts in a very one dimensional way.

  3. As far as I can see the swp does not equate UKIP as fascist. Of course we need to think through how we respond. Of course this involves some testing out different methods from anti fascist work etc..will we get it all correct ..obviously not. But I do think the absence from tad of concrete proposals, ideas is not very helpful..just slagging off the left for not having a strategy and then saying I can’t be bothered to tell you mine is frankly not serious.

  4. Your last sentence is a cop out because either you do have a strategy but you’re being evasive about it by using a vague argument that challenging UKIP’s racism is not nuanced enough for you or you don’t have one despite claiming that we must base our campaign on so-called “empirical evidence” regardless of whether it’s correct or not. Andy Jones is highly critical of the evidence you rely on and the conclusions drawn from it so how you can argue that he supports your argument is unclear.

    Despite your very unempirical claim that a campaign challenging UKIP’s racism is a throwback to the 70’s and does not work, it did, in fact, get rid of the BNP in the here and now. Are you claiming then that elements of the BNP vote were not part of a populist protest against the establishment? You appear to have a very mechanical conception of campaigning in which a campaign around a common theme inevitably excludes all other issues. That’s not how activists in UAF conducted the campaign against the BNP even though the focus was on unity over one issue.

    This morning on TV I’m watching a news report about how the UK establishment is pushing for compulsory teaching of Christianity in Muslim schools. No doubt Farage will have an opinion on this and you can bet it won’t be anti-establishment. Making those links is how we expose their hypocrisy while at the same time offering an alternative to UKIP by building strikes and protests against austerity.

    • Where does Andy Jones challenge the fact that UKIP build support by deploying anti-politics as a political strategy? What he does do is note this is happening and not deal with it head on. Just like you don’t want to deal with it head on. So you go round and round with your one-sided view of what is happening and strategy to match. But then it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the radical Left has nothing to say how a bunch of reactionary scumbags like Farage and co have got the drop on them in terms of anti-establishment appeal. The anti-politics part is all a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?

      Also, last I looked the BNP (and the EDL) were, like the NF, fascist organisations. UKIP isn’t. Yet you seem to be endorsing running an anti-fascist campaign against it. That doesn’t seem to be lacking “nuance” to me — it shows that you haven’t thought about how UKIP is not like fascism and what implications that might have. Which is weird, because the IS/SWP people who ran the ANL and UAF seemed to be much clearer on such things in the past.

  5. You’re evading the point. You start and end by saying that anti-immigrant racism is the key thing . This means you have nothing to say strategically about UKIP’s other sources of support except that somehow attacking its racism (and, presumably, its supporters’ racism) will expose the hollowness of its anti-establishment claims. Indeed, you seem to be in favour of “political accountability”, which makes you sound very much like the major parties in their approach to UKIP. Neither am I saying that anti-immigrant racism is a “narrow” part of their appeal. I’m just questioning the one-sidedness of your approach.

    As far as I can see the empirical parts of the ISJ article reinforce my point that UKIP appeals to voters on an anti-political basis. My argument is not that the radical Left always ignores these facts (although Bat manages to in this article) but that it has nothing to say about the implications of this for the radical Left or what can be done about racism (from UKIP or elsewhere). It just seems like an awkward fact to be gotten around or dismissed because the real game in town is anti-racism of the sort that worked in the 1970s. Except this is not the 1970s, UKIP is not the NF, and UKIP’s ability to successfully play the anti-politics card to a substantial audience (even if among a more conservative and middle class constituency) exposes a real problem for the far Left, which you’d think should be able to do well in a time of widespread anti-political class popular feeling. I guess falling back on what used to work in the past serves to distract from this.

    Not sure there is any point suggesting an alternative strategy when we don’t even agree on what is actually happening.

  6. Firstly, what “empirical evidence” are you citing? Your interpretation of any so-called “evidence” is open to criticism and is not absolute fact. My comments patently do not dismiss factors other than racism but I propose a strategy for addressing them through a campaign against the racism that underpins UKIP policy. You, on the other hand, have no perceivable strategy. You characterise UKIP’s racism as a narrow aspect of their appeal and this demonstrates that you have no experience of the debates they are provoking and the strategy they are using. Your assumption that the campaign challenging UKIP’s racism is failing is not only premature but it also fails your own criteria for “empirical evidence.”

    While UKIP are not fascists, so far this debate reminds me of the one we had with reformists who objected to confronting the BNP because this would alienate the so-called “white working class” who they claimed had legitimate grievances against the establishment.

  7. Where have I said they don’t appeal to anti-immigration arguments? In fact I list it as one of three major factors (Europe, anti-politics, anti-immigration). I’ve just been saying that this is not the only thing behind their rise. You seem to want to dismiss the others, but you don’t give any reason why. You just assert that race is all-important, when the available empirical evidence (as opposed to what you might feel is the case) says it is not.

    Given that your anti-UKIP strategy is based so narrowly on only one aspect of their appeal, and that so far calling them out for racism hasn’t been working especially well, I’d suggest that looking again at the reality of what is happening might point to more effective ways to deal with UKIP.

  8. Dr_Tad, what is your proof that UKIP’s appeal isn’t growing racist sentiment? On Question Time, in the media, UKIP candidates always link unemployment to immigration. They link cuts in services and pressure on the NHS to immigration. Farage is explicit about this link and rabidly tries to legitimise it by discrediting anyone who disagrees with this narrative as an establishment stooge. The bulk of UKIP’s active support are still ex-Tories and other reactionaries who sense a growing legitimisation of racism made respectable by Farage’s alleged hostility to the Far Right.

    In this context the correct intervention is to challenge UKIP’s racism not to pander to grievances about the established parties position on immigration and the EU. We cannot ignore the agenda being set by UKIP but, as socialists, we have an alternative perspective that nails how racist lies are being used to divide workers while the rich, including Farage, prosper from these divisions. This strategy allows us not only to expose UKIP’s racism but also to show how they want to emulate the divisive austerity strategy of Cameron and the Tories.

    UKIP are a party of the establishment, not part of some right wing, autonomous “Occupy” movement as they would like to portray themselves. There are many people who are sickened by their racist agenda and those taken in by it are not unaware of the racist connotations it entails even if they deny them. Anti-racism is what will build opposition to UKIP and help take on the lies that they peddle about unemployment and cuts in services. But unless this coincides with strike action and other protests by workers against the cuts then it is much more difficult but no less essential to offer an alternative to the austerity politics of UKIP and the Tories.

    That’s why unity among the left is ever more important especially given the potential displayed during the Scottish Referendum.

  9. The problem with ‘anti-politics’ theory is that it attempts to place a progressive spin on extremely reactionary sentiments in the case of UKIP. While the so-called “anti-Westminster” rhetoric of UKIP may have a superficial appeal it is their racist anti-immigration politics that is pulling ex-Tory and Lib Dem voters to the right. Tackling this racism is an excellent way of addressing the collusion between UKIP and the political establishment they claim to reject. The problem with UKIP’s anti-Westminster rhetoric is that it is profoundly racist and, as such, a disastrous terrain for the left to traverse. Our anti-racist position opens up all of the arguments about political accountability because it exposes the hypocrisy of blaming immigrants for cuts in services and unemployment while the rich, like Farage, receive tax cuts and bailouts.

    While the result in Clapton is concerning it exposes the relationship between the Tories and UKIP. The left needs to emphasise that connection by linking the racist rhetoric of UKIP and the Tories with their austerity politics.

    • Ray – You simply assert that racism has a power over and above all other factors in UKIP’s rise, but you provide no proof. Britain has always had very high levels of anti-immigration sentiment, spread across all the parties’ voters. It seems pretty clear that some of it is based in (incorrect) economic beliefs about immigration, whereas some is associated with racist beliefs. Yet in more recent times there has also been growing detachment from and disdain for the political class, which has now even infected large sections of the middle class (whereas it was once simply blamed on “apathetic, depoliticised workers”). Finally, UKIP voters still tend to strongly dislike the EU, despite declining opposition to Europe in the wider population. But, it is true, to broaden its appeal UKIP has consciously talked more about immigration and the political class.

      Why does race have these magical powers when the other factors don’t, even though they show up consistently as being so important to UKIP’s appeal? Further, having seen Farage on a number of occasions, it is not all clear that his anti-Westminster argument is always racialised. Most of the time it isn’t. What do you have to say about those anti-politics arguments or anti-Europe arguments he puts? Do you just scream “racist” all the time at the people pulled by those arguments? How is that going down?

  10. One of the tags on this article is “anti-politics” but in fact you have reduced UKIP’s appeal to its racism and anti-immigration policies and say nothing about anti-politics. This is odd as I know you have followed Ford and Goodwin’s analysis that indicates that there is a complex mix of appeals — to anti-EU sentiment among the original core voters, and then to a mix of anti-immigration and anti-Westminster elite sentiments among the broader constituency it has started to tap. It is curious that most of the far Left — like Miliband, but in order to make the opposite argument — has focused on this one aspect of UKIP’s rise when it seems pretty obvious that things are not that simple.


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