Essex: Can Douglas Carswell hang on to Clacton for UKIP next May?

Douglas Carswell, shares a joke with UKIP party leader Nigel Farage as they wait for the results of

Douglas Carswell, shares a joke with UKIP party leader Nigel Farage as they wait for the results of the Clacton constituency parliamentary by-election held atClacton town hall in Essex. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date:Friday October 10, 2014. See PA story POLL Clacton. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Clacton 2014. A sea-change or a mid-term protest vote? Political veteran PAUL GEATER isn’t sure the by-election has broken the mould of British politics just yet.

Douglas Carswell’s massive victory in the Clacton by-election is understandably a huge boost for UKIP and has shaken up the political establishment.

But is it a sea-change in politics or just another mid-term protest vote? Having watched “mould-breaking” by-elections many times over the last 40 years, I’m far from convinced this will be any more than a footnote in the political history of Britain.

Douglas Carswell’s result is impressive. To gain 60% of the votes in a relatively high turnout (for a by-election) of 51% is a very, very good result. It is almost certainly at the high end of his and his party’s expectations.

A 12,400 majority is good whatever the circumstances.

However scratch the surface and there is hope for the Tories in Clacton come next May.

In the last general election (which had a pretty low turnout across the country) Clacton saw 64% of its voters take part – that’s 13% more than voted on Thursday which equates to about 8,700 votes.

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While no one can tell for certain where those missing votes would have gone, it is not unrealistic to assume that most would not have been UKIP supporters who stayed away despite the fact their party was clearly in the lead from day one of the campaign.

In fact it’s not unreasonable to believe the vast majority of them were disgruntled Tories who didn’t want to support their party in what they saw as a meaningless by-election but would turn out in a general election with the government of Britain at stake.

I’d put that figure about 7,000 of the 8,700 – and if I’m right then that eats into Mr Carswell’s majority considerably.

Then there are the Tory voters who voted UKIP this time, but would return to the fold if they see the general election as a straight fight for Prime Minister between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

I’ve seen that happen after spectacular wins for the Tories in the late 1970s, and especially during the early 1980s when the success of the SDP-Liberal Alliance had David Steel telling his troops: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government!”

One thing that is clear from the election, though, is that it looks like bad news for Labour. The party won more than 10,000 votes in Clacton in 2010, but lost two thirds of them.

They could not persuade voters in the town that the best way to punish an unpopular government was to vote for the main opposition. That will be a real worry for party bosses.