The revolt of the Shires: Cameron’s last warning

The revolt of the Shires: Cameron’s last warning

But should UKIP have done even better?

Thursday’s elections represented a resounding raspberry to all three main parties.  Indeed, they reinforced that even talking of three main parties is an anachronism.  The Lib Dems did win more than twice as many councillors as UKIP but in all other respects they finished well behind.  In the South Shields by-election, UKIP scored another second place (their fourth in the last five mainland contests) and in the local elections, Nigel Farage’s party came within 6% of winning the national equivalent vote.

Next year, in their natural home of the European elections, it would be a surprise if they don’t top the poll.  England is now a four-party system, though the reality is that there are few four-party areas as UKIP consistently displace one or two of the other parties where they were already weak.

     As this year proved, they’re more than capable of taking support directly from all the other three: disillusioned right-wing ex-Tories, WWC socially conservative former Labour voters and ex-Lib Dems who voted against parties of govenrment.

That goes a long way to explain Labour’s poor performance yesterday.  As the only of the three established parties in opposition, Miliband should be making hay at this point yet Labour only did as well as in 2005 which was, admittedly, a general election Labour won but not by much and governments tend to recover as elections approach.  UKIP went a long way to syphon off the sort of support that Labour would normally have won.

Similarly, while the Lib Dems may take some comfort from the fact that their vote dropped most where it doesn’t matter – potentially saving more MPs than the vote share would imply – that fact also emphasises the extent to which they’re no longer a national party but a federation of local areas of independent strength.  The prospect of several hundred lost deposits can’t be taken too lightly either and nor can the continued haemorrhaging of their council base.

However, it’s Cameron of the three party leaders who has most to be concerned about.  True, finishing within 4% of Labour in national equivalent share was more than reasonable, as was the retention of so many councils but neither achievement should distract from the extent to which the Conservatives are becoming divorced from the values of the sort of voters that Margaret Thatcher and John Major won to give them their four election victories. 

    What should really hit home is that these elections were in the Tory heartlands: the message of discontent from the doorsteps will resonate up through concerned councillors, MPs and members of the voluntary party.

Whether he can do much about it is another matter.  He, like Clegg, is prevented by the constraints of the coalition from directly addressing the concerns other than through pledges for the future – though the suspicion is increasingly that not all that many would be met even were he in a position to do so.  Ironically, it’s the detoxification strategy which has done most to toxify the Cameron Tories with the Thatcher Conservatives.

Not that it’s likely that anyone else could do much better.  Even were there an alternative Tory leader in parliament who could reach those voters who’ve turned to UKIP, quite how he – or she – could do that while simultaneously preventing the Lib Dems from breaking into open rebellion is difficult to see.  The one Tory who has proven highly successful in putting that kind of coalition together on a large scale – not least by not being afraid of his human frailties or the odd gaffe – is out of the Westminster game for now.

And what of UKIP?  This has been an extremely successful week; one of their best ever up along with beating Labour in the 2009 European elections or nearly winning Eastleigh.  Yet it perhaps could have been better still.

      The two biggest individual prizes up for grabs were the mayoralities in Doncaster and North Tyneside.  UKIP didn’t nominate a candidate in either. 

Quite why not is a mystery.  Did they think they’d perform embarrassingly badly?  Were they concerned that they might actually win and be lumped with a high-profile liability?  Was Farage worried about what someone with such a democratic mandate might mean for his own leadership?

Who knows.  Whatever the true reason, the fact remains that UKIP passed the opportunities up.  North Tyneside might always have been out of reach without the right candidate; mayoral elections being at least as much about the candidate as the party.  Doncaster however may have been another matter.  UKIP is one of Peter Davies’ former parties and both could have benefitted from the support of the other.  I have no idea whether such an arrangement was possible but on the face of it there’s little reason why it shouldn’t have been.  If so, UKIP could probably have crowned a day of local election breakthrough with a sizable victory in Ed Miliband’s backyard.

The local elections 2013 are not necessarily a turning point in British politics.  Like the Greens in 1989, their success has come as much because of what the other parties aren’t as because of what they are.  UKIP will continue to perform well in European elections while the British electorate remain uneasy about the UK’s relationship with the EU.  Their continued success in domestic elections depends mostly on whether the other parties can address the contempt in which they’re held by UKIP voters.  If not, the 2015 election will probably be one of the most historic in the country’s history.  If so, victory awaits the party that can.

David Herdson

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