The local elections suggest something really historic in the Euros
The last time any party other than Labour or the Conservatives won a UK-wide election, women didn’t have the vote, the future RMS Titanic was still under construction and the Ottoman Empire stretched to the shores of the Adriatic. That 103-year long shut-out will probably end this week.
Before looking forward, however, a brief look back. The local elections have not been a spectacular success or failure for any party. Labour will be happy to have made some progress but should be concerned about the leakage of support they’ve suffered in the last two years. The Tories lost seats and councils but will take comfort from being within touching distance of Labour. Likewise, the Lib Dems lost another sizable chunk of their councillor base but at the same time proved that local factors can buck the national trend, something their MPs will have paid close attention to. And while UKIP built on their success in last year’s local elections and proved an ability to win in town as well as country, their vote share didn’t translate very efficiently into seats: 150 or so councillors is a poor return for 17% of the vote (the Lib Dems won two and a half times as many on fewer votes).
UKIP’s relative failure in the locals was primarily a consequence of FPTP: they piled up a lot of good second places, which don’t count for all that much in the big scheme of things unless you can build on them in the future. By contrast, solid across-the-country support is very helpful in an election conducted under PR, as Act II of Election 2014 – the Euros – are. With UKIP consistently performing at their best in European elections, Farage should be set to lead his party to a ground-breaking win, even allowing for the spoiler An Independence from Europe party.
Where would such a result leave the Westminster parties? Somewhere between a state of denial and shock, probably. There are always reasons to rationalise away exceptional results as an aberration – and indeed, it’s unlikely that UKIP will perform as well come the general election providing the other parties keep their heads. That they will keep their heads, however, is not a given. All three parties have evidence that might cause them to panic. Whether the consequences of such panic might have any beneficial effect is doubtful: the problems the parties have is one of engagement; their likely solutions, on the other hand, are the same sort of internal Westminster games that have failed in the past.
At the interval between the first two acts, as we are now, the audience is largely interested in what’s just happened or is about to but the events of both lead into the third, at Newark. The postal votes there will be being completed around now, ideal timing for Helmer. At the time of writing, UKIP were 4/1 to win the seat. While Newark isn’t natural UKIP territory (particularly now they’ve been more aggressively targeting former Labour voters), there’s still some value in those odds.
And what of the sequel: can UKIP maintain their momentum through to the general election? Much will depend on the media, both how the printed press handles them, and how OfCom obliges the broadcast media to treat them. To my mind, it would be a travesty if they continued to be considered a minor party, given their local election results this year and last, their parliamentary by-election performances and opinion poll scores – to say nothing of the as-yet uncounted European votes. That said, for now, they’re still without an MP and the political establishment may attempt to circle their wagons around that one fact to keep the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems in and UKIP out. Upon whether or not they succeed in that aim, a very great deal will turn. This week’s election has just made the task a lot harder.