So UKIP burst through, taking Clacton on a 44.1% swing, the second highest in UK by-election history after Bermondsey and Old Southwark, 1982.
The two party system is dead, and has been for a long time. The voices suggesting that coalition would renew it are silent. Multi-party politics is here to stay. And it makes our electoral system look even more dated than it already did.
Across this parliament we have seen further evidence of the new multi-party system. The triumph of the SNP in 2011 was followed by the independence referendum, with Yes Scotland providing a vehicle for mass dissatisfaction with Westminster. Post-referendum membership of the SNP has quadrupled, and the party is now a significant threat to Labour heartlands in Scotland. The party’s previous highpoint at Westminster was 30.4% of the Scottish vote and 11 seats at Westminster in October 1974. Smashing this prior record cannot be ruled out.
Working quietly in the background have been the Greens. Having taken Brighton Pavilion in 2010, the party has increasingly become the second party in left-liberal metropolitan areas, such as North London or Manchester. The Greens have crept up in the polls and are now regularly polling at around 5%.
Most spectacular of all have been UKIP. In four years the party has continually risen in the polls. They have gained with each by-election, regularly achieving increasingly strong second place finishes. UKIP’s win in the European elections earlier this year and massive gains in local elections have demonstrated that the party is now capable of winning across the length and breadth of England. Yet the party has also begun to build bases of support from which it can launch attacks on Westminster.
UKIP has traditionally suffered from a highly spread out vote. The party won more than three times as many votes as the Greens in 2010, but did not win a seat, whereas the Greens – who are better at targeting – took Brighton Pavilion. Yet now UKIP has a base – the East Coast running from around Kent up to around Grimsby is full of new UKIP strongholds. Thanet, Thurrock, Clacton, Castle Point, Boston and Skegness. There are also potential areas for UKIP in some Northern towns, Rotherham chief amongst them where local circumstances have conspired to increase UKIP support.
Taking Clacton last night was impressive. It is difficult to imagine the Conservatives taking the seat back in 2015. A UKIP presence in Westminster is here to stay. Perhaps more impressive is the rise of UKIP in Heywood and Middleton – a Labour safe seat without a defector. UKIP came within 617 votes of victory.
What we’re looking at now is a movement away from a two-and-a-half party system, towards a multi-party system. I’ve discussed before how 1974 heralded a new stage in the British party system as the two-party system began to break down. Now we move beyond even that into true multi-party politics with at least six significant parties across the UK.
This represents a major challenge to our existing political institutions. First Past the Post (FPTP) is a system which only makes even the slightest bit of sense when you have two utterly dominant parties. As the number of parties increases, its ability to represent people in any meaningful way deteriorates.
The first noticeable effect will be on individual seats.
Take a seat like Plymouth Moorview. A Labour-held marginal, it has seen a big challenge from UKIP in local elections. While UKIP are a long way from winning, they could take more than 20% of the vote, pulling Labour and Conservatives down into the high 20s. At the point where a seat is won with 26% or 27% of the vote, the result becomes almost random – a facet of someone deciding to vote here, a stray decision made in a polling station there.
Seat totals will also become even more divergent from their percentage of the vote than they are right now. It is more than possible that Labour could achieve the most seats without the most votes. If they then form a coalition with the Lib Dems, this could well be the first- and third-highest seat winners with the second- and fourth-highest vote counts, as the Lib Dems could well fall behind UKIP on votes but win more seats thanks to better seat targeting.
Coalitions can be a good thing. However, to work, they must reflect the wills of their electorate. A coalition formed of two parties with much less support than their rivals is clearly a poor potential outcome.
Another problem is the regional dimension. Parties who are likely to be successful at maximising their seats (the SNP, Lib Dems etc.) are likely to be highly localised and regionalised. This will encourage them towards a certain style of parochial politics – support for government based on more money for Scotland, or in the Lib Dem case, certain constituencies, perhaps. Defending their constituency and representing their voters is of course a key role for any MP, but to do so at the detriment of the rest of the country because they happened to vote for more nationally focused parties can only serve to divide the country.
Finally, this is all very confusing for the voter. Already we can see the main two parties reminding people that next year is a choice between Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Locally it may not be, however. If a Conservative voter lives in Heywood and Middleton they may well feel that their local choice is between Labour and UKIP, not Labour and the Tories. And in more multi-cornered contests this can be even more confusing. In a seat like Thurrock, now essentially a three-way Lab/Con/UKIP contest, how does a Lib Dem tactically vote if they wish to stop UKIP? For the incumbent Conservatives? For a supposedly resurgent Labour? It is bad enough to feel forced into strategically voting for a party you do not support. To strategically vote for a party you do not support and then to find out that you chose the wrong one would be even worse.
At what point do FPTP elections become simply a matter of luck, and fortune? As multi-party politics increases, FPTP increasingly falls apart. Its own internal logic – that it delivers strong, clear governments, also falls apart, but it will not deliver the outcomes of a truly proportional system either. Instead, results will cease to even vaguely resemble the will of the people. 2015 will almost certainly be messier than even 2010.
Multi-party politics is here to stay, but we do not have the electoral system to deal with it.