British parliamentary contests are described as first past the post for a reason, and the reason is that coming second does not get you a seat at Westminster.
Yet somehow UKIP is basking in a spectacular degree of favourable publicity through the simple expedient of losing the Eastleigh by-election.
One factor at work is that many rightwing pundits have a vested interest in bigging up UKIP’s “triumph” — if one wishes to call it that — by way of a weapon in what they see as a war to recapture the Conservative Party for Conservatism.
The parallel that immediately springs to mind is Roy Jenkin’s not-quite-good-enough campaign in Warrington in 1981, likewise hyped up by commentators determined to see Labour step back from its radicalism of the period.
If I were Nigel Farage, I wouldn’t find the analogy too comforting. After all, 32 years ago the Gang of Four were boasting that the SDP would “break the mould”; in the event, the show was all over just seven years later.
While the UKIP leader is similarly predicting an earthquake at the next general election, all we have seen so far is a tremor that objectively comes in towards the lower reaches of the Richter Scale. UKIP remains an MP-free zone, and there is no guarantee that it will supersede this status in 2015.
Remember that even though the space between liberalism and the place where authoritarian imperialist rightism gives way to overt fascism is vast, Tory hegemony within it has not been subject to any sustained challenge since the Conservative Party emerged in modern form around 180 years ago. For UKIP to carve out a permanent niche in this territory would represent an unprecedented achievement.
That said, just because something has never been done before does not mean it cannot be done. Where once David Cameron was able casually to dismiss UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, this collection of misfits, oddballs and space cadets has now shown itself a more attractive proposition to Hampshire voters than the Tories.
And while the Liberal Democrats did win in Eastleigh, Nick Clegg will be well aware that UKIP regularly place third in nationwide opinion polls, ahead of his party. Even Ed Miliband must be mindful that it has shown itself able to secure backing from a layer of former Labour supporters.
In many ways, UKIP is a classic rightwing populist project, articulating the anger of “the people” and pitting it against an out of touch “elite”, without specifying the class composition of either set of parameters. All that is missing is a charismatic leader, with Farage selling himself on his regular blokeishness rather than outstanding oratorical skills.
Untainted by direct fascist association, and seemingly sincere in its determination to forestall far-right entryism, it has the capacity to act as a focal point for nationalist sentiment.
Precisely because it is constitutionally opposed to racial discrimination, and because it has fielded black and Asian electoral candidates, its opposition to immigration can be passed off as respectable.
Its platform does have undeniable appeal to a fair old chunk of the electorate, as the 2.7 million votes it picked up in the 2004 Euro attest, or even its 900,000 tally in the 2010, surely illustrates. None of the myriad recent electoral challenges to Labour have even been able to dream of getting into such territory.
In short, UKIP may pick up a handful of seats in 2015, or it may not. Either way, the mainstream party leaders would be foolish to start basing entire manifestoes on a perceived threat that isn’t there.