Local elections are, as a rule, not the most exciting moments in politics. Despite the many and varied ways that councils have to make life difficult (and, of course, the very real and useful work done), the scale of the actions involved tends to limit genuine interest to politics fanatics, NIMBYs, and community organisers. On the national scale, the elections are seen mainly as a referendum on the current government in Westminster – which can, as in 2009, lead to political massacres. Little changes – council policy is on the whole affected more by geographical concerns than party policy – and the country moves on, relatively undisturbed.
This year’s elections may have conformed to all those stereotypes, but it’s fair to say that the results will still be the result of rather more scrutiny than often the case. It is becoming commonplace to remark on the dissatisfaction of the public with established political parties, but yesterday’s vote certainly brought home the reality. The Conservatives are facing the worst result since 1982 (an impressive achievement given the party’s performance in the Blair years). The Liberal Democrats have beaten even that, taking away their worst result ever (and coming seventh in the South Shields by-election, with only 155 more votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party
). Given the damage done to both by the coalition, this is hardly surprising: inevitably there will be discontent in the ranks, and rumblings of challenges for the leaderships, but this provides little besides media fun. Far more telling is that for the first time none of the big three Westminster parties have achieved over thirty per cent of the popular vote. Labour’s gains have been modest: their vote share – down ten per cent from last year – cannot have been the boost Ed Miliband will have hoped for, and they still control a fraction of the councils the conservatives do. The labour majority in South Shields has been almost halved. Little sign of a recovery from the disaster of 2009 has shown itself yet: Miliband must do better than this to prove his party has what it takes to win the general election.
The story of the day, however, is of course UKIP. If the weariness with Labour and Conservative alike has poisoned their relationship with the voters, the realities of government seem to have tarnished the Lib Dems appeal as the traditional refuge of the protest vote. UKIP, by contrast, has seen spectacular success, gaining some 23 per cent of the vote, and gaining 139 councillors, while repeating their performance in Eastleigh by coming second in South Shields. This is not to state UKIP has walked away with any real power – the party still doesn’t control any councils or have a representative in Westminster – but it is becoming a force in British politics, and its members can no longer be ignored (or, indeed, dismissed as fruitcakes and closet racists).
Clearly something about the party has struck a chord with the public, and for the first time it is clear that its appeal goes far beyond merely discontent over Europe. The Prime Minister’s gamble in offering a referendum on UK membership has not paid off, and even now heads in the corridors of conservative power must be knocking together in a bid to unlock the secret to killing what has the potential to provide an existential threat to the Conservative Party – in the haste to take the centre ground, the right has been abandoned; a dangerous move, in a country so firmly wedded to tradition.
So are UKIP simply a protest vote, a symptom of discontent and disillusionment? I met Nigel Farage and members of his UKIP war train recently, when they passed through my local town in an effort to drum up support, and it is easy to see the how Farage’s charisma, and the rhetoric he preaches, have won his party support among voters tired of sallow-faced Oxbridge graduates who, in cases, border on the indistinguishable. Despite, this, however, there is a lack of clarity to the message – Europe is still the party’s rallying cry, and policy outside this area veers between confused and non-existent (certain members I talked to were unable to come up with anything else UKIP stands for besides opposition to gay marriage). Even on Europe, points are confined to well-worn facts and figures – little sense of intellectual engagement emerges. If UKIP consider themselves serious players, they must come up with a more coherent platform, not simply take advantage of public anger (a trap Ed Milliband has done little to avoid too). UKIP can provide a serious contribution to political debate: it would do well to treat that debate with a little more sincerity and respect.