On Tuesday 22nd February 2011 my father, who lives near Christchurch, New Zealand, was at home with his wife, homeschooling their two teenage sons. At 12.51pm the house began to shake, and his wife and boys, being sensible people, dived under the living room table. My father went to join them but was distracted by the sight of the family glassware and china wobbling precariously in the Welsh dresser, so stood propping that up instead. 40 seconds later the china was still intact, but across the Christchurch area shops, offices, houses and a cathedral spire had collapsed.
The initial devastation was shocking and deeply tragic – 184 people lost their lives. But the full effects of the quake were played out in the weeks and months after the event. Three years on, numerous shops and houses lie vacant and condemned, fatally undermined bridges are still being replaced causing continued traffic chaos, and livelihoods are still being rebuilt.
That’s how earthquakes work. The initial impact, though often spectacular, is just the start. It’s the broken foundations that do the most damage.
So it is with political earthquakes. Following the European Elections two weeks ago, mainstream commentators have crowed ‘Where is Ukip’s promised earthquake? Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are all still leading their parties! Ukip still has no MPs! Whilst Ukip celebrates, the political establishment goes back to running the country’ But to do so is to miss the point. This was not a General election. A sea change in government was never on the cards.
In fact, the events on the night were spectacular. The Lib Dems crumbled, losing all but one of their MEPs and only clinging onto the remaining one by a mere 16 votes. Meanwhile, Ukip topped a national poll – the first time an outsider party has done so for over 100 years.
When seismologists want to study an earthquake, they don’t attach their instruments to the pinnacles of carefully engineered quake-proof towers, they bury them in the ground where the tremors happen. While the facades of the legacy parties are still standing, their foundations have been fatally undermined. The commentators looking at Cameron, Clegg and co are looking in the wrong place. They need to look lower down the structure.
For example at Newark, where the Tories are having to fight tooth and nail to hold onto what should be one of their safer seats. Never mind the kitchen sink, they’ve thrown the dishwasher, washing machine and microwave at this one, ordering Ministers, MPs and candidates to visit the constituency multiple times. This morning they conducted a ‘dawn raid’ with 1000 activists conscripted in from across the country. Remarkable, considering Mercer had a majority of 16,000 and that the Labour party – who held the seat as recently as 2001 – are barely featuring. There’s the evidence that a political earthquake has taken place.
The aftershocks will rumble quietly on throughout this year in any by-elections that take place, but the real test of how powerful the Ukip earthquake has been will come next year at the general election. It is then that we will get to see how fatally the foundations of the other parties have been undermined. Have they been built to last, or will they be swept away by the rising tide of public opinion?