The count's in: 147 UKIP councillors. What now?
Farage's party have changed the landscape – at least for a bit.
After all councils across England and Wales have declared, UKIP has 147 councillors, far in excess of where it was predicted come before the elections.
Although there have been murmurs of protest – that the party's success was a self-fulfilling prophecy once the press started boosting Farage and co as a viable electoral force – there is no doubting that it's an important threshold for the erstwhile "fruitcakes" (although, of course, victory in local elections does not necessarily mean one is not a fruitcake…), and the conversation has turned to what happens next.
For the Conservative party, the consensus seems to be that treating the party as as laughable collection of far right xenophobes hasn't worked. Instead, the commentators suggest, it's time to look back to UKIP's roots as a single-issue anti-EU party, and outflank them their. So, Charles Moore writes in the Telegraph:
Already, it is clear that Mr Cameron has two desires – to win the next election and stay in the EU come almost what may. His speech is seen as a feint. Hence Ukip’s momentum, and hence the resurgent anger in his own party.
But Matthew Parris offers the opposite view in today's Times. UKIP should still be taken seriously, but not as a shining light of where popular conservatism lies; instead, Cameron's party should view it "as an enemy". He writes:
I’m a Conservative because I believe in the party’s central strand of moderation, social liberalism and internationalism. There are some on the Right who do not want these things. There is a limit to how far I would move to accommodate them, and a point beyond which I think they should consider a different party. That party might be UKIP. Well, so be it. Mr Farage should be challenged to forget about playing footsie with other people’s parties and make a decent fist of organising his own.
But while it's Conservatives who are having a crisis of faith this weekend, UKIP faces tough challenges on the horizon as well. For the party now has to deal with the nitty-gritty of local politics – a challenge which has scuppered other far-right parties. And while tactics of obstructionism work in the European Parliament, where the vast majority of UKIP's elected officials have say until now, there will be councils where the party is expected to provide a positive contribution to governance: if the candidates Farage would have "rather not" had don't get their act together, they will struggle for re-election in 2017.
What of the other parties? UKIP has overthrown the electoral calculus in more ways than one, of course. As our own Rafael Behr writes, Labour can't be complacent about UKIP's success:
There are plainly gains to be made for Labour nicking Tory seats if right-wing voters break for UKIP. That should offer very little comfort to Ed Miliband. Farage’s party came a respectable second place in South Shields, suggesting that voters who have been culturally inoculated against backing the Tories for a generation have no such qualms about UKIP. There are seats across the north of England and Scotland that Labour has taken for granted, where the party machine has rusted, where there are no up to date voter lists and the activist base is tribal and complacent.
Ironically, it's only the Lib Dems who can take an unabashedly positive view of UKIP. The party, already frequently a protest vote and with such clearly europhilic tendencies that it runs little risk of losing votes to the purple wave, has suddenly found a way of winning in the LD/Tory marginals which are increasingly its only hope in Westminster. If Tory votes go to UKIP, while Labour votes (grudgingly) tactically come to the Lib Dems, the party might be able to staunch the flow.
And finally, spare a thought for the Greens. They didn't show too badly on Thursday – gaining five councillors in elections far outside their core – and, as they keep pointing out, they do have an MP, something which remains a dream for UKIP. But the greater success of the green movement (even UKIP has a green policy of sorts, although it rejects the "LibLabCon-sensus" that climate change is man-made) might have left the Green party floundering for a reason to exist. After this week, it might see a bright future in the much-tossed-around idea of a "UKIP of the Left", but whatever happens, a reinvention seems necessary.