Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

Only one party still has room for manoeuvre after Rochester and Strood

Politicians and pundits are so taken up by the news cycle they're forgetting what the headline story about the Ukip by-election triumph in Rochester and Strood really means.

Namely, that the Conservatives have no answer to the challenge posed by Nigel Farage that doesn't involve doing their best to out-Ukip Ukip.

Whether in putting forward immigration policies so extreme they are instantly dismissed for being unrealistic, or in promising to deliver a referendum on Europe where Ukip never can, the Tory approach to Farage has consistently been to try and marginalise him.

It's not working. In Rochester the vote share of the three mainstream parties fell by a combined total of 32.48%.

This is a calamity for the establishment. It continues Ukip's earthquake. But it has already been 'priced into the market', as if it was always going to be this way.

It was not. During the Conservative party conference the anger at Mark Reckless' defection far exceeded that which met the oddball Douglas Carswell's crossing the floor. Tory MPs spoke eagerly about their determination to teach Reckless a lesson.

Now the result is in it is they who are being taught a lesson, but it is not one the party is yet heeding.

Instead both William Hague and Douglas Alexander have sought to return voters' minds to the idea that the next general election is a presidential one.

Unable to guarantee they will ever be likely to have enough MPs to form a government in their own right, Labour and the Conservatives are going to make the May 7th 2015 contest one about leadership.

Here's Hague on the Today programme:

"It was still a small majority for Ukip, a terrible result for the Labour party. We have to get the message across that Ed Miliband is trying to sneak into Downing Street on the back of a strong Ukip performance, that’s all he’s got left going for him. In a general election, people need to vote Conservative.

Alexander repeated the message about this choice - surprisingly, because this is ground on which the Tories feel they are stronger than Labour. But he then offered a more realistic assessment of the state of play:

"David Cameron threw the kitchen sink at this seat and lost, but the truth is this by-election... sends pretty strong messages to the mainstream parties next May. The party that will win is the one that answers the undoubted anger and sense of alienation that voters feel today.

"The principal fuel in Ukip's tank is more anti-politics than even anti-Europeanism... these are trends that have built up over decades rather than overnight and you have to defeat that with practical answers. that has to be done street-by-street, doorstep-by-doorstep, community-by-community. I don't think it's too late."

By-elections, it's clear, aren't general elections. And the Tory message about 'vote Farage get Miliband' is going to be much more relevant in 2015 than it is in this contest.

Farage senses this; it's why in his own media appearances this morning he's been insisting that Ukip voters ignore the system and vote Ukip because they mean it. He is probably right, to a degree - but protest votes always, always shrivel when it comes to the question of who actually runs the country.

The problem is we don't know exactly how much shrivelling is going to take place. The deep-seated, slow-burning rage which the electorate feels is not going away in a hurry.

Farage is right about next year being hard to predict. In Westminster, top aides are saying it is harder to work out what will happen than at any time since the early 1980s.

What now follows is the real test for the two parties whose dominance in parliament, unchallenged for a century, is now fracturing.

The early indications are that Labour and the Conservatives are taking very different approaches to what lies ahead.

The Tories have a clear Ukip strategy. It is a firm, decisive, calculated gamble that when push comes to shove those flirting with Ukip will return to the fold when it really counts.

Labour faces a different set of dilemmas. As recent polling from Stockton South shows - a Tory-held seat which Labour really must win in order for Miliband to get into Downing Street - the Conservatives are maintaining a slim lead, apparently down to the 19% of voters who say they're backing Ukip. Across the north of England the Ukip presence threatens to be deeply damaging.

Ukip supporters need to be cultivated, not ridiculed. This is why Miliband got so worked up over that tweet from Emily Thornberry yesterday.

"He didn't hold back in making clear how angry he was this would lead to widespread misinterpretation," Alexander explained.

"The alienation and anger I'm describing wasn't caused by any tweet, it's been caused by much longer-term trends. Political parties cannot take any voter, community or class for granted. Anyone who wants to stand for election next May has to start with a fundamental and deep respect for the voters, to whom we're asking for support."

The Conservatives talk about the 2015 general election as being like landing a jumbo jet: it takes a very long approach and requires that the pilot holds his nerve throughout. Whether it works or not, the Tory strategy remains stable even in the face of by-election turbulence.

Labour is all over the place. Its leader's shaky, inconsistent performance does not help. Nor does the attitude reflected in Thornberry's indisciplined tweet. Yet there are those in the party who understand that all is still to play for.

Of all the 'known unknowns' about May 7th 2015, the biggest is not Ukip. It is the Labour party. How it shapes its strategy, and its relative success in connecting with the millions of voters it shed in the 2005 and 2010 general elections, could yet prove decisive.

Rochester and Strood teaches us that Cameron, Farage and even Nick Clegg now have relatively little room for manoeuvre. Miliband, on the other hand, still has choices aplenty.

His party knows they have yet to be made. No wonder they're feeling so jittery right now.

Why doesn't Miliband talk about Europe like this?

Sir John Major has painted a striking picture of an irrelevant, smaller Britain outside the European Union. Why doesn't Miliband talk about Europe like this?

Defending the European Union against Ukip's surge in the polls is a risky business. Nick Clegg tried it in a series of televised debates earlier this year; his party crashed and burned in the European elections that followed. Ed Miliband has obfuscated over a European referendum for years; now he is offering only tentative signs that he may be willing to make the case for Europe.

This is why Sir John Major, who as a former prime minister has exactly nothing to lose, is emerging as one of the most effective defenders of the European Union in Britain today. His interview on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show this morning saw him agree to the need for a curb on the "numbers, numbers, numbers" of new arrivals coming to Britain from elsewhere in the European Union. It also saw him predict confidently that officials in Brussels would work out a way of meeting Britain's concerns. "The EU has a very pragmatic record of finding a way around difficult corners like this," he said.

With that dealt with Major took the fight to senior politicians like the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who has persistently suggested Britain could be prepared to realistically threaten to quit Europe if it did not get its way.

What followed is, unusually, worth quoting in full. This is Sir John Major's take on the kind of future Britain could look forward to if it left the EU:

"It would be a lesser future. The belief we would be economically free if we left, that we could just trade with the EU as before – we would have to pay for entry to the single market and we'd have to accept their regulations.

"I wouldn't like to be the British prime minister ten, 15 years from now who'd have to stand up in parliament and say 'in order to continue to trade with the European Union we have to pass the following regulations into which we have had no input' – I wouldn't like to do that.

"I wouldn't like to be the British prime minister who said we're no longer getting the inward investment we're used to, it's now going to Germany, France and Italy.

"And on a political level, I really wouldn't want to be the British prime minister that would have to explain we're sinking to a much lower level of relevance in the world outside the European Union, with the doors in the corridors of power being closed to us.

"On every count, despite all the frustrations, of which there are many, despite the reforms we need which are many, we are far better off in the European Union than outside it. And most important of all, we are far better off for the next generation and the generation after that if we are in.

"Britain has been a great nation in the last 300 years. Do we really want to sink to a lower level of relevance outside the European Union? Of course we'd survive, of course we would. And how frustrated would we be when our word meant so much less and our economic power was materially decreased?"

But voters don't want to listen to an ageing, grey-haired man who wears light-blue socks with aplomb. They want to listen to the politics of the pubman. In fact Major alluded to this – "the negativity of the Four Ale Bar" – as he attacked Nigel Farage's Ukip as being "profoundly un-British in every way".

This looks like being the reason why Ukip are going to win the Rochester and Strood by-election hands down this week. Voters choosing the "sheer nastiness" of Ukip, Major said, was what happens when people get "frustrated".

Westminster has already accepted the arrival of a second Ukip MP is now unavoidable. The Conservative party, like the EU, is nothing if not pragmatic. What now matters is its response to Ukip's success and the continued threat Farage poses as next year's 2015 election looms.

The fear is that Major's comments, however courageous they may be in declaring a willingness to fight Ukip head on, will not be viewed as the best template to campaign on by many of the Tories' worried right-wing eurosceptics – or by the Labour politicians facing a Ukip threat in the north of England.

Sainsbury's advert: The Christmas Truce message is pro-European

The Sainsbury's Christmas advert depicting the Christmas Truce of 1914 carries a hidden political message: avoiding war means sticking with the European Union.

That might seem like an extreme leap to make, but it's one that would undoubtedly be the view of the politicians I spoke to in Berlin and London earlier this year.

A century after the moving and inspirational Christmas Truce, when a joint rendition of the carol Silent Night temporarily brought the First World War to a halt, German and British MPs were once again harnessing the power of music to bring their countries together.

The Parliament Choir and the Bundestag Chor's joint concert in Westminster Hall in parliament back in June was a big moment.

This was diplomacy conducted through choral music. In a packed season of military commemorations, parliamentarians were choosing to mark the impact of war without any involvement by the armed forces.

All the emotions packed into the Sainsbury's advert were present once again: the injustices of war, the instinct of ordinary people to overcome it, the determination to never let another devastating conflict ruin millions of lives.

In this summer's concert they were being harnessed by the Germans to make a clear point: to avoid another conflict, we need to stick together.

Eurosceptics in Britain are so fed up with the idea of ever-closer political union in Europe that they openly discuss the idea that the UK would be better off on its own.

Small-minded islanders might think this is a good idea – but in Germany, which was twice scorched by the horrors of war in the 20th century, the urge to unify rather than divide is strong.

Former prime minister Sir John Major warned in a speech yesterday that Europe risks "sleepwalking into antagonisms it cannot repair".

He's not talking about a future war, of course. That remains unthinkable. But the need to stick together is undoubtedly felt extra keenly when you remember the suffering of past generations.

"We still have that responsibility to never let this happen again and to always think of it," as one German singer put it.

The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London are just the start of a four-year festival of remembrance that will make sure the present generation never forgets the pointless bloodletting of 1914-1918.

Thanks to Sainsbury's this will be happening at Christmas – the time of the year when we value peace and love more than any other.

It's an advert which reminds us of music's ability to heal – a message just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.

Many of those who were old enough to vote in the 1975 referendum on Europe say they did so because they wanted to make sure another war could never happen again.

The European Union has its downsides, but its crowning achievement is that it has successfully kept the peace for 70 years.

The sound of gunfire which breaks up the Christmas Truce in the Sainsbury's advert is an ominous moment.

As Britain approaches the possibility of an in-out vote on its membership of the European Union, it's a troubling feeling that seems strangely apt.

The future of Europe is, once again, in the balance.

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