In what even the local party secretary has dubbed “UKIP’s worst-kept secret”, Nigel Farage announced yesterday that he has decided to stand as a parliamentary candidate in the constituency of South Thanet in Kent. The seat has all the makings of a UKIP success story, one which will deliver the party their first elected MP to the House of Commons.
If the UKIP leader is elected to represent the constituency, it will be far from the first time that the voters of South Thanet have switched party allegiances. Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative MP, comfortably held the seat from its creation in 1983 until Labour’s landslide in 1997 – an investigation into Mr Aitken’s alleged breaking of the ministerial code in allowing a Saudi businessman to pay for his stay in the Paris Ritz Hotel exacerbated the swing from the Conservatives to Labour in Thanet South compared with the rest of the country.
Stephen Ladyman, the Labour candidate who won in 1997, went on to serve as MP for the constituency until 2010. He was beaten by Europhile Conservative Laura Sandys, who currently serves as the MP. However, for personal reasons she has decided to stand down for the 2015 election, which provides Mr Farage with the ideal opportunity to enter an incumbent-less field.
It will not be the first time that the UKIP leader has stood in the seat. In 2005, he won 5% of the vote in the constituency, increasing his party’s share by 3.7%; a considerable advance, considering that the party’s presence in the political sphere was not as great then as it is today. UKIP are polling consistently well in the area too. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, the voters in Thanet District Council area awarded a resounding victory to the party: 46% of votes cast went to UKIP.
However, even though Euroscepticism is strong in the area, it is not clear that this will all go to benefit Mr Farage. Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative candidate for the seat, is not only Eurosceptic, and not only a former UKIP supporter, but also one of the founding members of the party.
At the moment Mr Farage is in lone company when it comes to UKIP politicians that are widely known throughout the country. His charismatic appeal to voters offers him widespread attention and control of the direction of the party. Media opportunities will also be easy to come by in Kent, with its proximity to the news institutions of London. However, he will no doubt be aware that his decision presents a risk. Given the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, winning South Thanet is the only chance Nigel Farage has to become a MP. If he loses, and another UKIP candidate succeeds somewhere else, the media’s attention will shift onto other senior members of UKIP.
Certain tactics must be used if a smaller party is to gain representation at Westminster. The Greens’ Caroline Lucas, for example, became that party’s first MP by winning Brighton Pavilion (1 of our 50 seats) in 2010, yet the overall percentage of votes the Green’s won was smaller than in 2005. The Green Party concentrated most of its resources in one area and they were ultimately successful.
UKIP enjoys greater widespread support so the strategic decisions about where to channel the party’s resources will be tougher, especially if the party wants to win greater representation in Parliament and capitalise on successes in the last years. A fine balance will have to be struck: give candidates enough money that they have the resources to run a well-functioning campaign, but don’t share the resources too thinly and end up with several near misses.
Any election will contain multiple narratives, and although Nigel Farage’s candidacy is a key plot line, UKIP will not be the only story to South Thanet. With two anti-Eurosceptic candidates in the field, there is potential for the vote splitting between the Conservatives and UKIP. Indeed, even though the most recent Lord Ashcroft poll found UKIP in the lead in the constituency at 33% of the vote, Labour and the Conservatives were tied close behind on 29%. Most major parties, from one point of view or another, have good chances in South Thanet, so it’s far from certain, despite the hype, whether Nigel Farage will be an MP this time next year.
Photo: European Parliament via Flickr.