Politics is an art, not a science. Yet it has rhythms sufficient enough to venture predictions. And one forecast you could have made yesterday about the result coverage was that a) the Tory win shows they're on course for victory in 2015, b) UKIP are a busted flush, and c) it's a disaster for Labour. The ever-reliable Dan Hodges manages to distill all three in his too-smug summary of the results. With a bit more expert weight, John Curtice more or less says the same thing. Who am I to challenge this providence?
I'm going to anyway. First off, UKIP are not in terminal decline. They haven't jumped the shark. They are not about to transition into an ex-party. For the time being, they're here to stay. This is why Dan & co. are Westminster watchers par excellence. They see there are no upcoming events, apart from unforeseen by-elections, that UKIP can exploit to keep the momentum going. And come next May when the three main parliamentary parties present their programme of government, the so-called people's army will be out of sorts. That UKIP is a movement, a sociological phenomenon responding to economic restructuring, and the rewiring of culture and gender, passes them by. They're guilty of viewing icebergs to the exclusion of the nine tenths below the water line. And these not-immediately visible features are still exerting an influence. UKIP has thrown its anchor into the depths and snagged the subterranean structures, and they will hold the ship steady until such a time another force comes along and breaks their chain. Therefore reducing UKIP's success to the seasons of the political calendar is a philistine argument. This isn't to say political opportunities are without their efficacy; it is equally as daft to pretend otherwise. So yes, their anti-politics wildfire is due a dose of drizzle. Their flame will burn less brightly in polls between now and May. Furthermore, UKIP's over-exposure is starting to mobilise an anti-UKIP vote. Protesting a protest party by voting for the incumbent, as anecdote suggests, is something novel. So, in sum, Newark says nothing new about UKIP that we didn't already know. It's here. Deal with it.
Let's talk about the Conservatives. In the real world a nine per cent swing away from them has happened, but now it's getting spun as a triumph. Newark was the sea defence that turned back the UKIP tide. And you should think so too. Four visits from the PM, every minister and Tory MP in the land, 600 activists out last weekend (I wonder how many were constituency staff "volunteered" by their bosses?). Basically, the country's entire Conservative Party apparatus relocated and set up shop. There is lobbing the kitchen sink, but this was something else. When was the last time so much effort was put in to defend a super safe seat? Newark is a constituency where some districts still weigh the Conservative vote - using imperial measures, of course. The effort expended is proportional to the depths of desperation the Tories have sunk too. Their media friends are slapping them on the back for a job well done. In fact, there has seldom been a starker demonstration of their political and organisational weakness.
And now Labour. On the one hand, we have people telling us we now live in the era of four-party politics (three, if you want to discount the LibDems). On the other, Labour isn't doing good enough to win next year. Looking at John Curtice again, he says:
The truth is that they [Labour] should be on tenterhooks as to whether they will win the seat. That swing that they would need, it is less than the Labour Party achieved in Norwich, less than the Conservatives achieved in Norwich in the last Parliament, less than Labour achieved in Dudley West, Wirrel South just before they won the 1997 election. When oppositions look as though they are on course for government, the kind of swing that is required for Labour to win has been relatively common. To that extent, we have to ask ourselves, why is it we are not asking the question, could Labour win this? It is all of a piece, as a result of the recent elections, Labour do not have the enthusiasm and depth of support in the electorate that make them look like an alternative government.If this was before 2010, the good professor may have had a point. Yes, Labour's vote share is down. But Curtice has forgotten that the past is a foreign country. The four party dynamic for second order elections does not allow past behaviour to serve as an accurate predictor, as used to be the case. UKIP is an entirely new factor. Think about it like this. Did the LibDems holding on in Eastleigh augur well for them? No. How about the Tories coming third in Sunderland - does extinction loom? No. It's fair to say every by-election since Labour won Corby in 2012 has departed from conventional wisdom. Incumbents have won with a reduced majority, and with UKIP not that far behind. Hence UKIP is the go-to protest vote everywhere in England and Wales, regardless of who holds the seat because what is being protested isn't one party, but all three mainstream parties. Quite why no commentator has taken this sequence of by-elections together and read it for what it is - a protest against establishment politics - is beyond me. As a "sod the lot of you" protest against Westminster politics, it's a mistake to extrapolate and/or cast doubt on who will and won't win next year. A good proportion of that vote will stick with UKIP, as polls suggest. But where it doesn't and how that is distributed across the country, that's the great unknown. All anyone can say with confidence is that the result will be close.
We're in genuinely new territory. Instead of relying on old maps it's time to explore - and fight - anew.