Heywood and Middleton means nothing like the media/UKIP are saying

BBC News, Radio 4 and others have been giving plenty of airtime and oxygen – as they did for years without justification in featuring Farage on every possible occasion – to the UKIP ‘near-triumph’ of UKIP in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. The claim, in pseudo-rational analysis by pundits and near-histrionic terms by UKIP spokespeople, has been that the result is a scare for Labour and a clear demonstration of UKIP’s supposed threat to Labour in its heartlands.

Nonsense – as a quick comparison of yesterday’s results and the 2010 General Election results will show.

Here are the results side by side:


The first thing to note is that Labour’s vote is down by 37% – exactly the same as the percentage drop in turnout (36/57.5 = 63%). As is well known, in what is perceived as a solid seat for any party, voters for that party usually turn out in lower numbers in a by-election because of the assumption that others will vote in sufficient numbers to secure the win).

It is almost unquestionable that this would have happened in Heywood and Middleton, where a by-election resulting from the death of a popular Labour MP would have been expected by the local populace to bring a straightforward Labour win. In fact, it’s extremely likely that the fall in Labour turnout was higher than the average, which would make Labour’s result an effective increase on 2010.

The UKIP vote rose by 9,800 – with a massive effort from them to create an upset. It’s certain that every would-be UKIP voter would turn out to vote, either in protest or in the hope of creating that upset or at least putting on a ‘good’ show.

But now look at the Tory result. The Tories were terrified of getting a worse result than UKIP in this election and will have mobilised every possible effort. Yet the drop in their vote was massive – and almost identical to the increase in the UKIP vote.

Not only that, but the BNP did not stand a candidate – unlike in 2010. Since, as we saw in Rotherham, in a strong Labour area the UKIP vote basically cannibalises the BNP vote, it is very safe to assume that the same happened in M&H yesterday.

UKIP’s vote rose by 9.800. The Tory vote fell by over 9,000 and the BNP vote disappeared.

Without the former-BNP vote, UKIP would not have been able even to match the fall in the Tory vote – in spite of what must have been a high turnout of their voters and a massive effort to create a splash.

This was nothing like the result that UKIP and the media are trying to paint it as. So what was it – what are the real lessons?

First and foremost, that – as always, and in spite of claims to the contrary by Farage and his cronies – all UKIP were able to do in a ‘Labour heartland’ was cannibalise the votes of disaffected Tories and, even more shamefully, of the disgraceful BNP.

Secondly, while this was very nearly a disaster for the Labour party, it’s extremely unlikely to set or demonstrate a trend. Labour voters stayed at home in the Heywood and Middleton by-election – but one close call is enough to ensure that this mistake will not be repeated in other seats at the next election.

Sadly, this isn’t a view you’ll hear/read mentioned in the media. So spread the word.


  1. It took me a few minutes and a calculator to reach exactly the same conclusion myself. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a media full of arts graduates didn’t stop to do a little basic maths – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect it.

    It’s pretty clear that Labour voters simply didn’t regard UKIP as a serious threat and stayed home, while the right wing vote piled in behind UKIP en masse – tactical voting, or a sign of things to come?

    However, Rochester and Strood is possibly the far more interesting result. And one Labour frankly has to lose. Why? Because if UKIP manage to split the right wing vote to the extent that Labour win the seat, Cameron will be able to credibly assert that voting UKIP in 2015 will get Labour, which will shore up the Tory vote no end; whereas if UKIP win, they can claim, justifiably, that voting UKIP gets you UKIP – and continue to decimate the Tory vote, while only lightly grazing the Labour vote, unhindered.

    Still, I do want to see Labour respond to the UKIP challenge. But if they try doing that by pandering to right wing positions and prejudices, they might as well just not bother standing any candidates in 2015. They need to respond by tackling UKIP head on – by saying “if you want to leave Europe, crash the UK economy even further, abandon any idea of civil rights in this country – then vote UKIP; but if you want a fairer society where the poor are not perpetually at the mercy of the whims of a tiny number of wealthy, powerful people, we’re the only game in town”.

    They need to. But they won’t – because the PLP long since joined the tiny number of wealthy, powerful people.

  2. I think UKIP’s impact on Labour will be swings and roundabouts. In sme constituencies where they have a sitting MP on less than 36-37% of the 2010 popular vote (because Con/LD opposition was split) there could be problems if UKIP picks up a few Lab/many Con, and LD->Lab defections don’t compensate; this nearly happened yesterday in M&H, but Labour had a little bit more margin and of course there was a by-election effect for UKIP. On the other hand, tight 40-38 Lab-Con marginals might get easier for Labour at the GE if many Conservative voters choose the anti-EU line and UKIP splits the right-of-centre vote.

    But these are tactical, second-order problems for Labour. M&H shows that the Tories have first-order problems, because it’s their supporters who are taking off to UKIP, and will do so more or less everywhere (outside London).

    It would be ironic (although not a very good mandate to govern, sadly) if Labour got a workable overall majority with 35% of the popular vote, with Con=200 and UKIP=60 seats, fulfilling Cameron’s (quite reasonable) claim that the only way to get a referendum on Europe is to vote Tory.

    1. The Tories’ mandate to govern was even weaker, and look at the damage they’ve wrought. We don’t have an electoral system where the popular vote means a damn in terms of mandate – and for all the Tories cry foul about this every time Labour win, they torpedoed the only real chance to change it any of us are likely to see in our lifetimes.

      If and when Labour do end up with a robust majority on less than 40% of the vote, the Tories shouldn’t be able to walk down a quiet corridor without someone reminding them that it didn’t need to happen that way; AV would have won them a landslide in 2015 on 2nd preferences from UKIP voters.

  3. I think the maths is a little out since the LibDem losses can be included. If the Labour votes are multiplied by 0.63 then for comparison, the other votes must be too… so by my reckoning

    Votes 2010 63% 2014 Diff

    Labour 18499 11654 11633 +21
    Cons 12628 7955 3496 -4459
    LibDem 10474 6599 1457 -5142
    BNP 3239 2040 0 -2040
    UKIP 1215 765 11016 +10251
    Other 170 107 0 -107

    Cons + LibDem (4459+5142) = 9601 with another 1000 picked up from ex BNP.

  4. Some good points in this article, but undermined by you getting the constituency name the wrong way round throughout – it’s Heywood and Middleton.

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