Why the by-elections results don’t matter

Hundreds of political journalists, analysts and experts are pouring out thousands of words about the significance of two by-elections – in Clacton, where Ukip won and in Heywood and Middleton, where they didn’t (but nearly did).

That’s understandable, it’s their job to make events seem important. Yet the two by-elections were like the recent Chelsea vs Arsenal game in the Premier League. Interesting as a snapshot but pretty useless when looking to see who’ll win the big prize next May.

British political history is littered with by-elections that have promised great things – they always seem to be described as earthquakes – but have never actually resulted in a dramatic change to the general election result. Shirley Williams won the Crosby by-election in 1981 for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), for example, decimating the Conservatives in a safe seat: their share of the vote fell by over 17%. It seemed to be the harbinger of a complete realignment in UK politics but, instead, the Conservatives (helped by a war and improving economy) swept to a landslide victory eighteen months later.

This won’t happen next May, and the very fact that both by-elections are so unusually close to the general election means they acquire an extra significance. Yet neither result should be overthought and overanalysed.

The fact remains that Ukip remain the only conceivable protest vote available for disgruntled voters – of which there are many – particularly in Northern constituencies such as Heywood & Middleton where the other major parties have more or less given up. In Clacton there was the highly unusual situation of a popular local MP resigning to run again under a different party banner, yet more or less keeping the same views.

General elections will not be decided by protest voters and Ukip will not have the country’s political media all to itself in May. They will have to find the resources to stretch over many constituencies, probably hundreds of constituencies if the party wishes to mount a challenge to match its leader’s bombast. They will have to organise, be organised and have a credible local candidate. Their best asset – apart from all the other parties – is Farage himself, who will be fighting his own seat and can’t be everywhere at once. Ukip also have to be careful that their own leading figures don’t all fall out amongst themselves, a real problem for political parties with only a handful of notables at the top – as the SDP, the last major attempt to realign British politics, found out.

Clacton and Heywood and Middleton will no doubt have some lessons for the big parties, which they will promise to learn. But by-elections are political events to themselves; overanalysing the results from yesterday’s votes is good for journalists on an otherwise dull Friday but not so helpful for the parties themselves.