COMMENT: The unstoppable rise of UKIP in West Sussex?

Head of News Mark Dunford gives his views on the Eastleigh by-election result and the implications for West Sussex, where county council elections are being held in May.

Our comment
Our comment

As a good journalist, I don’t support any political party - especially those on the right-wing extremes of the spectrum.

But living and working in West Sussex, I speak to hundreds of traditional Tories in this historically true blue rural county of ours.

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And ever since the last general election there has been a growing resentment that they feel their party has abandoned them.

It is no wonder therefore that UKIP pushed the Conservatives into third place in Eastleigh yesterday.

Once life-long Tory voters are abandoning what they consider to be the liberal and spineless party that they once supported and switching to an organisation which they feel genuinely represents their views.

From all I hear both from ordinary voters and Tory politicians, the UKIP result in Eastleigh was not a protest vote, but one of those rare seismic shifts in voting patterns that occurs every 50 years or so in national politics.

For West Sussex it could have extraordinary ramifications.

In May we have the county council elections. If UKIP fields in every constituency, for the first time since the 1990s the political colours of the ruling group on the authority could be tested.

Come the next general election, there would be no safe Tory seats in West Sussex - and the more marginal ones like Crawley which Henry Smith so diligently secured at the last election would be put at risk.

So what is it that’s outraged West Sussex Conservatives?

I can only go by what they continually tell us... Europe and the three main parties’ failure to give people an honest choice on our relationship is a key concern. But that has been rumbling on for years. It goes further.

Take housing for example.

The people of West Sussex who traditionally vote Conservative do not want massive house building on our green fields. When the Conservatives were in Opposition they appeared to support that view.

Now they claim they have delivered by abandoning nationally and regionally set housebuilding targets.

Yet if anything they have merely piled on the pressure.

The New Homes Bonus is a bribe to councils to build more and more - and appeals system means that if local councils don’t oblige they are unlikely to be able to resist developers demands anyway.

Immigration from within the EU is another key concern - not least because it is this factor which is driving the need for endless more homes and constantly pushing up the costs of them.

Taxation - and a failure to revive the economy by slashing personal taxes, once the sole domain of the Tories, is another factor.

Finally, abandoning the hard working middle classes - through the imposition of horrific university fees and loans, the removal of child benefit, and any real empathy toward their day to day concerns - has proved critical. Traditional family values now seem openly derided.

For those who traditionally want to see the Tories prevail, all is not lost.

The party needs to abandon its liberal left-wing stand-for-nothing-and-everything image and be clearly seen to put family values and the best interests of Britain at the top of the agenda.

The in-out EU referendum needs to be held now - there is, after all,

no threat to British trade as we remain a net importer from Europe.

Henry Smith has repeatedly made a bold stand on these issues, putting himself at loggerheads with his party’s leadership. Other MPs now need to follow suit.

Failure to do so in places like West Sussex will see the continued almost unstoppable rise of UKIP which was once a group of eccentrics and has now formally entered the mainstream.

As for the Lib Dems and Labour - this great failure of the Conservatives to assert Conservative values and principles could yet revive their fortunes in a way they could have barely dreamed of in recent times.

Obituary writers for the Lib Dems since the formation of the Coalition Government may yet have been premature - as the lesson of Eastleigh clearly proves.