The victory of UKIP in the Clacton by-election, and their strong second place to Labour in Heywood and Middleton, on 9 October underscores a shift to the right in British politics.
These results come on top of UKIP's 27.5 per cent share of the vote in the May European election, the biggest share of any party. The Clacton result cannot therefore be dismissed as a flash in the pan.
While the result is very bad news for the Tories, who saw their vote halved, and even worse for the Liberal Democrats, who won only 1 per cent of the ballot, there are also issues for Labour.
The Clacton seat was created in 2010 but Labour had won the previous seat of Harwich in 1997 and 2001. Even in 2010 they won around a quarter of the votes, yet in the by-election they barely struggled over the 10 per cent mark.
Clacton is not a prosperous place; it has a high unemployment rate and around twice the level of deprivation than the England and patches of some of the worst poverty in the country. If Labour no longer does well it is not because of prosperity, but because people no longer have a strong working-class identity tied to political affiliation. Instead many have turned to nationalist and anti-immigrant politics as an expression of their position and voted Conservative, and now UKIP.
In Heywood and Middleton, on a low turnout, Labour’s vote marginally increased compared to 2010. UKIP’s net gain was at the expense of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The media claimed Heywood and Middleton has always been a rock-solid Labour seat (and Labour support is in decline). Not quite true. Well into the 1960s, its predecessor seats, Middleton and Prestwich, had been a Lancashire Tory stronghold. Nonetheless, even before the 1997 landslide, Labour was capable of winning majorities of more than 50 per cent.
As the Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes both collapsed, and since some Liberal Democrat voters will have turned to Labour, it is likely to be a considerable number of previously Labour voters switched to UKIP.
What does this show? Probably Labour is maintaining much of its 2010 vote, votes which might be considered its core votes, but they have not been able to oppose the austerity and cuts of the last four years to build on this vote. At least in part they are losing out to UKIP. Although in most places the loss to UKIP is not calamitous for Labour, in some areas such as Rotherham (where in the May 2014 council election, UKIP won just over half the popular vote), it could be.
The Rochester and Strood by-election will be held on 6 November may demonstrate the same issues. The one poll taken (before the Clacton result) suggests UKIP is likely to win on around 40% of the vote, with the Conservative vote not collapsing as seriously as in Clacton. The same poll suggests the Labour vote will hold at its 2010 level of around 25%. But again that relative success masks the fact that this is an area where Labour has previously won seats.
The Labour leadership’s immediate response to the by-elections has been to toy with increasing its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Apart from being a scandalous response, it won't solve Labour's lack of credibity voters. When Labour tells voters immigration is the problem those voters will be more likely to vote for a party they believe will really do the most to halt it — the Conservatives or UKIP.
Labour’s electoral problems stem from the defeats that the working class has faced since the 1970s, and in part have accentuated and worsened those defeats. UKIP’s rise and the right-wing shift in British politics will not be halted by the Labour leadership joining in the dash to the right.