The one thing about the supposed UKIP breakthrough in yesterday's local elections that surprises is just how it seems to have taken politicians and commentators by, err, surprise. I mean, who could have possibly guessed that if you essentially say you agree with the party on immigration, Europe and welfare and let them get away with repeatedly abusing statistics, linking Romanians explicitly to crime and generally scaremongering in the most irresponsible way possible that they'll win over your supporters who see you seemingly not doing much about these things? Who knew that if you dismissed them as loonies, however accurate that description is for some of its supporters, that it would simply come across as ignoring legitimate concerns? Why does it come as a shock that at a time when wages are stagnating and the cost of living is going up, with all three main parties offering either austerity or austerity-lite, that an upstart fourth party gains support regardless of its own economic policies?
Before we get into the caveats and wider perspective, it's also hardly surprising that a populist fourth party has finally established itself considering the media we have. The Daily Express and Daily Mail are basically UKIP supporting papers (the Sun is also to a lesser extent, it's just far more comfortable with the country in 2013), it's just that their editorials urge votes for the Tories. Both constantly fulminate against the "abuse" of human rights laws, 'elf 'n' safety, the EU, the welfare state, immigrants and modern life in general. Neither can properly pick out when exactly it was that Britain was great, the 50s having been abandoned, although the Mail seemed to be trying its best to suggest it was the 80s as Maggie was waiting to be buried, but it most certainly isn't today. There's been a gap for some time for a force on the hard right between the Tories and the various openly racist parties, and Nigel Farage has succeeded where others have previously failed.
Add in how little scrutiny the party received prior to the last week from the wider media, despite the likes of Paul Nuttall (nominative determinism) laughably claiming it's been smeared, as well as how Farage has been treated by the BBC (and the likes of the Graun) not so much as a politician but a likeable novelty act it would be churlish to ask serious questions of, and the party's showing in the county council elections is fairly easy to understand. It has to be emphasised these are county council elections as I simply don't believe as yet that UKIP would have made such inroads into the cities and urban areas. Yes, they've had strong showings in all the recent by-elections, but these can be mainly understood as protest votes, as YouGov's poll on why people have supported UKIP suggests.
Their share of the vote locally is something deeper. Local elections have long had low turnouts, and those most likely to vote are generally older, fitting Lord Ashcroft's study that suggests UKIP most appeals to older men who are estranged from modern life and culture and don't want any part of it. What's so odd is that on almost every point, the Tories do reflect their concerns on Europe, immigration etc. Where they fall down is that they get the impression that they don't, and that their façade on trying to be all things to all people has further alienated them. This goes beyond mere disenchantment though, as the Ashcroft poll suggested: this is just as much lashing out as it is expecting UKIP to make any real difference.
Which puts the Tories in such a quandary. Cameron knows full well, even if his backbenchers don't, that he can't win a general election by being ever so slightly to the left of UKIP. He couldn't win in 2010 on a centre-right policy platform, albeit one which made promises on protecting budgets his party would otherwise like to cut. He therefore can steal some of Farage's clothes, cracking down harder on benefits or the perceived access that immigrants have to them, or by possibly bringing forward the EU referendum, although that will entail a battle with the Lib Dems, but go any further and the centrist support he has is likely to evaporate. The real question is whether come 2015 those now plumping for UKIP decide they'd rather have Cameron as prime minister than Ed Miliband, and my guess is that many will come back to the Tory fold, such will be the level of propaganda about a return to power of Labour. Some though clearly won't, and it might be those few that end up costing Cameron vital seats.
Then again, we've been here before with the sudden rise of fourth parties, almost all of which have quickly disappeared back into the ether. Farage himself was talking about the SDP, but more apposite is the surge of the Greens in 1989, or the brief period when it looked as though the BNP might have shaken off its neo-Nazi image. It's one thing to get elected, it's another to then keep the seat once the electorate have seen what you've done with it. In this respect it wouldn't be a shock if, like with the BNP, UKIP fairly rapidly fades away.
Overshadowed by UKIP's success is the continuing decline of that former protest party, the Lib Dems. To get just 352 votes in the South Shields by-election isn't just humiliating, it's catastrophic, as is the loss of another 124 council seats. If the Eastleigh result showed us that you need a local operation to win, then the decimation the party is suffering bodes ill for 2015. Nor was yesterday a happy day for Labour, who really ought to be doing far better than winning just shy of 300 seats at this point in the electoral cycle. They're claiming that they're doing well in the areas which they need to win come 2015, but at the moment it looks as though the party is barely improving on its 2005 result, when disenchantment with Tony Blair was at its high point.
Strangely then, it's the Tories who probably had the second best day of it. Yes, they've UKIP to worry about, but to lose 335 council seats from such a high point is just about the best they could have hoped for. It's how the party reacts to the threat from its right that will define how it does over the next couple of years, and all the signs are it's going to fall exactly into the trap outlined above.
Labels: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Labour, Liberal Democrats, local elections 2013, local elections aftermath, Nigel Farage, politics, Tories, UKIP