Earlier today, Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for the Essex Clacton seat, announced his defection to UKIP in a surprise press conference. He claimed that “Only UKIP can shake up that cosy little clique called Westminster”, that “the Conservative leadership does not [want] real change” and that David Cameron was “not serious about political reform”. Despite being a known firebrand and maverick in the Tory party, this decision will come as a harsh blow to Prime Minister David Cameron and the more conventional Conservative “establishment”.
First elected to Parliament in 2005, Carswell initially represented the Harwich constituency after defeating Labour incumbent Ivan Henderson by 920 votes. This constituency was abolished in 2010 and replaced by two new ones: Clacton, and Harwich and North Essex. Mr. Carswell continued to represent the former after the 2010 general election, having won with a majority of 12,068 votes.
Very much his own man, Mr. Carswell was awarded for being “Parliament’s most liberated MP” by website politics.co.uk, and feels little party constraint or partisan loyalty. Since first being elected he has consistently fought against the status quo in Westminster, which he is personally deeply unenamoured with, harbouring hopes for greater democratisation and accountability of elected officials.
Indeed, Carswell advocates recall elections for MPs who violate their public accountability, as well as US-style open primaries to select candidates for general elections. He has likened the Conservative Party to failed music shop HMV, which was eventually forced to close down in the face of online competition from the likes of Spotify and Grooveshark. Always willing to speak his mind, regardless of how popular his assertions might be, he wrote in the Daily Mail on 3rd March 2013 that his party “needs to become a genuinely grass roots organisation once again...[and] harness the mood of anti-politics.” Failure to do so would result in the Tories “be(coming) its victim”. He also expressed his delight at Parliament voting against bombing Syria in August 2013, as it meant that the institution was sovereign and had asserted itself against the Prime Minister’s wishes.
He is, in other ways though, a very traditional small-c conservative. He voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013, justifying his actions by stating that legalising gay marriage was not exactly a priority. Mr. Carswell has also blamed the “the something-for-nothing benefit culture” on high levels of immigration, urged for a cap on the number of immigrants the UK is admitting, and vociferously opposed European integration.
In a parliamentary debate in October 2012, Mr. Carswell compared the UK’s EU membership to "being shackled to a corpse". He even went so far as to introduce the European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill 2012-13 in an attempt to reverse the act of 1972 which led to the UK joining the European Economic Community: the EU’s predeceasing organisation. Opening a debate by asserting that discussion of exiting the EU could not be "dismissed as unthinkable" any longer, he made it very clear that such views were no longer on the political periphery, but have become more and more mainstream. Time proved him correct, and a stream of prominent Tories have begun seriously entertaining the idea of a British future outside of the European community. This culminated with a speech Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson made on 5th August 2014 in which he claimed that Britain could have a “great and glorious future” outside of the EU, and had “nothing to fear” from exiting it.
In many ways, UKIP seems Mr. Carswell’s natural home. Aside from the obvious Europscepticism which abounds within the party, it is packed full of radicals and outside-the-box thinkers who are also dedicated to ending the status quo in Westminster. Party leader Nigel Farage himself said so in an article published by The Independent on 15th April 2014. Although widely considered right-of-centre, UKIP is surprisingly diverse and certainly capable of reaching beyond the traditional Tory-Labour divide that so frustrated Mr. Carswell in Parliament. Its social conservatism, commitment to the working classes and patriotic economics will certainly resound with an older generation of voters who would have previously thrown their lot in with Labour. Branded “angry white voters” by The Guardian, this is a national constituency ripe for switching traditional allegiances to UKIP.
Although it did not have to be the case, Mr. Carswell chose to initiate a by-election in Clacton to allow his constituents to have “their choice” as to whether or not he would continue representing them in Parliament. While seemingly noble, this demonstrates a certain cunning that should not be underestimated. Carswell clearly recognises that current conditions are ripe for retaining the seat: Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft puts the odds of this happening at 1/3. Come 2015, Mr. Carswell will not only be able to sell himself to Clacton as its loyal and long-standing MP, but also one who gave them the right to choose whether or not he returned to Westminster in UKIP purple.
Nigel Farage will certainly be delighted by Mr. Carswell’s defection, and has barely been able to hide his smugness in television interviews since the news broke. One peer in the House of Lords is nice, but a seat in the Commons prior to 2015 is nothing short of a coup. While Nadine Dorries flirted with joining UKIP in the aftermath of her spectacular falling out with the Tory leadership, nothing actually came of it. And now, the reality is the exact opposite: UKIP will, in all probability, have its first MP within six months. For all their talk of being a force of change in Westminster, they have had nothing to show for it. Up until now, that is.
The potential for damage to the Conservatives is enormous. Just over three weeks ago Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned from her position as Foreign Office Minister, slamming her party’s policies towards Israel and Palestine as “morally indefensible”. No ministerial resignation of conscience is of benefit to a government, but this becomes more and more nightmarish the closer a party is to a major election. When Carswell effectively gifted the Tory’s main rival and splitter of votes a Commons seat, this was only compounded. Already lacking a parliamentary majority, Clacton is just one more target seat on a long list of those that must be retained or taken from other parties. This may also lead to a large number of Tory activists and grassroots members following suite and joining UKIP. Already a scarce commodity, loyal foot-soldiers are a resource the Tories can ill afford to lose at this time.
Ultimately though, the cause Mr. Carswell holds so dear – virulent Euroscepticism - is likely to suffer from his defection to UKIP. Third and fourth parties do not do succeed in the British political system. When the British National Party, after much sensational campaigning, finally enjoyed some electoral success in the 2009 local and European elections, they were booted out of office by an unsatisfied electorate at the first possible opportunity. While the Liberal Democrats may have become part of government a year later by entering into a coalition with the Conservatives, they lost far more in the long-term than they would have hoped to gain.
Why should UKIP be any different? Its MEPs and leadership frequently expose themselves as little more than suited clowns and make what are, at very best, ignorant cock-ups. At worst this may simply come down to racism and xenophobia. That is not to say that Douglas Carswell falls into that bracket, because he does not. Radical reformers of his ilk are desperately needed in Westminster to allow the political system to reach its full democratic potential. His chances, however, of having any impact require him to remain in it. By joining UKIP, he is stepping outside the secure ranks of an established political force, and thus risking the deliverance of valuable goods that Britain's democracy is so deserving of.
By Daniel J. Levy