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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle