Although the local government election results are, as yet, incomplete, it is clear that the ‘winner’ is UKIP. It came second in the South Shields by-election with a quarter of the votes cast, pushing the Conservatives into third place and the Liberal Democrats into seventh place with one per cent of the vote. Professor John Curtice has been number-crunching UKIP's performances and tells the BBC that its share of the vote was 27% in Essex and 25% in Hampshire. In Lincolnshire it was 24%. The party took 22% of votes in Dorset, 20% in Somerset and 16% in Gloucestershire. Turnout appears to have been lower than in 2009: in Wilshire, for instance, it was 43% in 2009 but a predicted 32% in 2013 and in Cumbria a fall from 39.6% to 32.6%. In the coalition, unsurprisingly, braced itself for losing seats but it appears that the Liberal Democrats have done worse than the Conservatives. Labour should be doing better than it appears to be doing at this stage in the election cycle. The response from the major political parties has been predictable: ‘we hear the message’ was the response from the Conservative Party chairman; people like to give the government a kicking in mid-term elections; traditionally people vote for protest parties when they can’t vote in a general election. This shows a degree of complacency among the political classes.
Some who voted for UKIP rather than for one of the main parties will return to the fold in 2015 but this neglects the inexorable rise in support for UKIP not simply in the south but across the country and it has now shown that it can succeed beyond European elections. True, it does not (as yet) have representation in Parliament and the current electoral system means that it will be difficult for them to make this breakthrough. However, its success will intensify its impact on the political parties in Westminster. The government has already announced harder policies on immigration and on the regime in prisons and a referendum on the EU has been promised (but that has happened before on several occasions and we’re still waiting). Those on the right of the Conservative party will feel, with some justification, that their warnings on immigration and attitudes to the EU have been vindicated and this will strengthen their calls for David Cameron to put flesh on his somewhat insubstantial political bones. I am certain that Labour will trumpet their triumph in the by-election (they were never going to lose South Shields anyway even with a reduced majority) and local government elections but, like much in politics, it’s a case of smoke and mirrors. The reality is that they should be doing better against a very unpopular austerity government and they are not. They have failed to convince the traditional working class voters to vote for them and appear to have no real economic alternative to the government’s austerity policies. As for the Liberal Democrats, they appear to have held up tolerably well in their main centres of local government power but they also appear, somewhat unfairly, to be the butt for voter contempt for coalition policies.
To dismiss UKIP’s performance as a protest vote, as has already happened and I’m certain will continue to be the mantra of the political classes in the next few days, misses the point entirely. Whatever UKIP’s detailed policy on immigration in this country is, and there has hardly been a consistent message from the party allowing it to be branded as racist, it appeals to the many who feel disfranchised by the existing political establishment and who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are treated with contempt by them. Yes governments have to make difficult and often unpopular decisions and most people recognise and grudgingly accept that but on two key issues, the linked questions of immigration and the EU, there is (and has been for several decades) a serious and growing mismatch between the public’s and political classes’ attitudes that the major parties appear not to acknowledge. Yet scepticism about the political, though not the free trade economic project, of the EU cuts across party boundaries and not just in the Conservative party where the fissures are more widely publicised. In that respect UKIP poses a threat to all the major parties.