UKIP declared a ‘sea-change’ at the 2013 local elections winning 147 councillors in local authorities (a gain of 139 seats) and an average of 25% of the vote across the areas which they contested. UKIP’s candidate Richard Elvin also finished runner-up behind Labour in the South Shields by-election with 24% of the vote. These results are both unexpected and impressive, but how much do these results mean in the long-term? Are UKIP a genuine up and coming force in British politics or are they simply the result of Conservative party failings and merely a mid-term protest vote by the Conservative right-wing?
BBC political editor Nick Robinson described the UKIP vote as a very English anti-establishment revolt; this sentiment would seem to suggest that the UKIP vote was simply the result of the general public feeling disillusioned with politics in Westminster and as a result the UKIP vote represents a ‘none of the above vote’. However, it would appear that UKIP have attracted voters not just from the Conservative party but also from Labour, highlighting that their rhetoric appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. One important factor that could be attributed to the rise of UKIP in these local elections, which appears to have been overlooked by most, is the fact that Britain’s largest newspaper, the Sun, which often has a defining impact on election results, chose not to back any political party over another. This could prove more troubling for the Conservatives if the Sun maintains its stance up until the next general election.
Of course, local elections are hardly a barometer for success at general elections, and it is unlikely that UKIP will improve or even maintain this percentage of the vote in a general election; voting at local elections is notoriously low in comparison with that of a general election. Yet they have made a statement of intent and, to use Nigel Farage’s own phrase, they have ‘thrown British politics up in the air’ in doing so.
Then what impact, if any, will these election results have at a local level? Although UKIP have made considerable gains in terms of councillors, the local impact may actually be quite neutered as it is unlikely that there will be a change in political direction within the county councils. The councils have remained either Labour, Conservative or with no overall control. The greatest impact of these local election results will surely be felt in Westminster more than in any county council.
On the one hand, these local election results could be seen as a blessing for the Conservative party. UKIP have served as a wakeup call for the Prime minister who had previously been dismissive of UKIP labelling them ‘fruitcakes’ – a remark he has been quick to backtrack on in the light of these local election results. It is clear to most that UKIP made gains on the back of coalition promises on immigration and the economy that have yet to be fulfilled.
It could be speculated that gains were also made by UKIP because people have become disillusioned with centralised politics as a whole. Labour too felt the knock on effect of this public backlash towards Westminster, only making moderate gains at a time traditionally of opposition support. Despite maintaining David Milliband’s vacated seat of South Shields, it is clear that Labour are far from the challenging force they strive to be. The Conservative party, on the other hand, would appear to be fully aware of its failings; and, given that Theresa May has already come out and vowed that the defecting UKIP voters will be won back by the next general election, it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest an EU referendum on the horizon to entice those defecting voters back. This notion of an EU referendum has potentially damaging consequences for the coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
It would appear then, that UKIP popularity may not translate itself into governing power just yet, even in local government, but that the impact of these results is sure to influence Conservative decisions in the lead up to the next general election.