In capturing a seat last night, the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has brought its grand total of representation in the 650-member British Parliament to one.
That’s not exactly a force to be reckoned with. So what is all the fuss about?
In some ways the talking heads are taking it too far. The seat was won in a special election spurred by the decision of Douglas Carswell, who represents Clacton in southern England, to defect from the Conservative Party to UKIP at the end of August. A popular figure, his win last night had been anticipated – though his ability to garner 60 percent of the vote caught many by surprise.
Still, with this vote, UKIP has officially broken down the doors of the national political establishment. With just one seat, UKIP has moved onto a powerful new playing field – underscoring its appeal particularly to working-class voters who have often felt neglected by other parties.
The Guardian newspaper today commented that “a new chapter in British politics has opened.” It wrote, “The biggest message from these results is that four-party politics is here to stay, something that no one thought possible within the straitjacket of first past the post.”
The win follows a series of coups for the party, most recently in European Union elections in May, when UKIP won more seats than any other party, with 27.5 percent of votes. Despite that momentum, UKIP is not expected to increase its representation dramatically in general elections next May – though that's less a reflection of its popularity than it is the use in the UK of the “first past-the-post” system, which gives the victory to the candidate with the most votes – even if they do not win a majority – and favors established mainstream parties.
The win also means that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who is seeking another five-year term in May, must be vigilant about the possibility that other Conservative Party members might defect to UKIP. He is more likely now to move right on UKIP's bread-and-butter issues, the European Union and immigration, both of which the party thinks put the average Brit at a disadvantage.
Perhaps the most significant result from last night’s race happened on the other side of the country. In the special election in the district of Heywood and Middleton, a Labour stronghold, the Labour party barely squeaked out a victory against UKIP. The share of votes going to UKIP surged from 3 percent in 2010 to 39 percent last night.
While UKIP was originally regarded as a party that drew disgruntled conservatives, it’s now increasingly appealing to those who feel that mainstream politics has left them behind. In other words, they can draw support from both sides of the political spectrum. (Read an in-depth report on Britain's future here.)
UKIP leader Nigel Farage sent a warning out to his mainstream rivals. “We are the most national of all political parties,” he said last night. “We are the only party that can get big vote shares in Tory heartlands and in Labour heartlands. No other party crosses those boundaries – those old divides of left and right and the divides of class.”