UKIP have been on the receiving end of a number of defections recently, with new website Trending Central pitching in to talk about the defections, specifically mentioning London as an area of recent gains. Something both Trending Central and a number of UKIP insiders have mentioned is how little reporting this has got. What both forget is that the total number is small, with Merton council aside, the defections are largely inconsequential. The numbers are small and these are councillors, so defections are a semi-regular occurrence at that level, normally getting reporting in the local press and not much else. UKIP has received this normal level of coverage. There isn’t a plot or denial by mainstream elites because there is normal consistent coverage.
Now to get to the real business: I know that, at the very least behind closed doors, if not openly, many UKIP members have concerns over who is representing them, and whether these defectors will automatically be selected to represent UKIP. Will long-term members be overlooked in the hope that it will bring in more defections? Are these people defecting out of principle or are they moving simply because they’ve fallen out with other members of their party? Can these people be trusted to carry the UKIP brand?
It would seem that in the case of Cllr Marilyn Yarnold-Forrester in Stevenage , there is an honest defection out of principle, leaving on relatively good terms with other local Tories. This cannot be said of many other recent defections. You might be aware that local council groups across London are going through re-selection with their local associations. Councillors have to convince local members that they have done a good job and will continue to do so, facing opposition from other would-be councillors, in order to fight for re-election under the Conservative banner in the 2014 local elections. This is a democratic and wholly reasonable practice. You might note that the defector in Richmond borough, Scott Naylor, was recently deselected by the local Conservative grassroots, the reasons that they might have made that decision I will not go into, but perhaps ‘kippers should be careful before embracing him too readily.
Similarly, in Romford, where UKIP’s sole London councillor, elected as such, has been joined by three others, it is as a result of a reselection ‘row’, with one of the three being formally deselected and the other two not contesting reselection. UKIP is providing an outlet for wayward councillors who have fallen out with local associations. Again, in local government, this sort of spat is fairly common (big egos and little responsibility), the traditional move for disgruntled Tories used to be to residents associations groups and similar and has simply become moving to UKIP – they might get more press coverage that way, feeding those egos.
Again, the councillor in Hastings, John Wilson, the only other mentioned directly in the article, has also been deselected by his local party, again prior to defecting. It is unlikely that any of these defectors will hold their council seats next year, these are moves made because they are no longer going to be Conservative councillors after 2014 anyway.
How have UKIP performed in the recent by-elections in London? Have they won a seat that way? Apart from Lawrence Webb (the party’s London Mayoral candidate) in Havering, no. He is still the only councillor to win in London under the UKIP banner. There were seven council by-elections last Thursday, two of which were in London. Of these, UKIP managed 3rd (out of 4), 4th (out of 4), 3rd (out of 3), 5th (out of 6) and 3rd (out of 4) for the non London seats, and in the London wards, 6th (out of 8) in Lambeth, and 4th (out of 5) in the Beverley ward in Kingston. So much for there being huge success! Whilst credit is due for managing to stand in all these by-elections, many seemed like paper candidates, and the London results particularly saw UKIP struggle. Whilst the percentage gained in many of those non-London seats initially looks impressive, – that is because of the low turnout – in only two of these by-elections did UKIP break through the 200 vote mark, in Somerset where they won 10.6% and in Beverley (Kingston) where they gained 7.6%, both short of their national polling, which is already heading downwards. When the turnout is high, UKIP are struggling to compete, with very little money, infrastructure or activists.
UKIP members and officials often talk of defections as if they are the target, the thing to aim for, perhaps due in part due to a failure to break through in elections. Maybe they should spend less time taking Conservatives to lunch and dinner in an attempt to bring in defections and instead work to get people elected on their own accord – to do that democracy thing they keep talking about. Prove that they have what it takes, without piggybacking on the hard work of Conservative and other activists to get elected, before disregarding them and moving on when they fall out with that same base.