Lib Dems live to fight another day

There hasn’t been much good news in a long time for Britain’s Liberal Democrats. Since joining in a coalition government in 2010 with David Cameron’s Conservatives, their opinion poll ratings have been awful; they have been forced to concur in a raft of unpopular measures that they had historically opposed.

The small measure of electoral reform they extracted as part of the coalition agreement was heavily defeated in a referendum in 2011, and then last year they were shafted by the Tory backbench over changes to the House of Lords. In the meantime, one of their most senior ministers, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne (whom Nick Clegg had narrowly defeated for the leadership, and who remained his most likely rival), had been forced to resign due to a scandal and last month left parliament after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.

But there was finally time for celebration yesterday when the Lib Dems narrowly retained Huhne’s seat of Eastleigh in a by-election. Their candidate, Mike Thornton, won with 32.1% of the vote against the UK Independence Party with 27.8% – its best ever result. The Conservatives were third on 25.4%, and Labour on 9.8% a distant fourth.

That’s a drop of 14.5% in the Lib Dem vote since 2010. Still, a win is a win, and in the worst possible circumstances for a by-election it’s not a bad result. Knocking the Tories into third place would have made it feel even better. Lib Dem strategists are now telling the media that they can target more Conservative seats at the next general election.

But the Conservatives aren’t worried about the Lib Dems, they’re worried about UKIP. Cameron will now be having nightmares about a steady 20% or so migrating from the Conservatives to UKIP, handing marginal (and even not-so-marginal) seats to Labour. It might even start a nagging thought that he would have been better off supporting preferential voting in the 2011 referendum.

Ironically enough, closer integration with Europe seems to have bred in the UK a very typically northern European far-right party. Not a traditionalist, neo-fascist party (the British National Party has that territory covered), but a party that pays lip service to liberal economics and even “libertarian” values while being fanatically anti-immigrant, not unlike the Progress Party in Norway. (I had a go at explaining the different strands of the far right a couple of years ago.)

A detailed study last year revealed the extent to which UKIP’s voters are driven by xenophobia. Polling by the BBC in Eastleigh confirmed it; 55% of UKIP voters mentioned immigration as a reason for their vote, compared with just 15% of all voters. These are not people that just disapprove of currency union or bureaucracy in Brussels; they are anti-foreigner, period.

Other European centre-right parties have learned to live with extremists on their right flank. But Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system makes that a particularly difficult issue for Cameron. The fate of his government, and his own reputation, may well come to depend on how he deals with it.

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