Local elections: seven early thoughts on what they mean

UKIP won the day, but not because of Europe, a Tory MP may well defect and parliament will be hung after 2015.

Some early observations on the meaning of yesterday’s elections. (George has very helpfully summarised and analysed the results here.) 

UKIP won

Whatever the final break down of shares of the vote and swings, it is clearly Nigel Farage’s day. His party is dominating media coverage, effectively ramping up the idea that this is some kind of national insurgency and that a bomb has been detonated beneath the old party establishment. That makes for a day-long, free party political broadcast for UKIP – even the bits where MPs from other parties are attacking them.

UKIP will win next year’s European parliamentary elections

Tory MPs were gloomy about the June 2014 MEP poll even before today. One recently told me his party would "definitely lose", by which he meant come behind UKIP. I mentioned yesterday the prospect of a "don’t ask; don’t tell" attitude to UKIP voting in local Tory associations. There will definitely be some tacit licensing of UKIP votes next June because activists can’t bring themselves to sell Cameron’s "in, but after renegotiation" position on the doorstep. The message is: have your wicked way with UKIP on Europe but come back to us for a general election to stop a Labour government. That might backfire horribly because …

It isn’t about Europe

All of the detailed polling of UKIP supporters confirms this. Yes, they hate the EU, but that is because it is an emblem of many other things they hate more: bossy, distant, characterless, arrogant, metropolitan elites foisting immigrants on them and telling them they’re racists when they complain about it. Etc. To many UKIP-minded voters, David Cameron looks much too close to that model of politician to ever be trusted, even when the alternative is Ed Miliband. This hatred may well be deep enough and the sense of Lab-Con equivalence in turpitude may be strong enough that UKIP could sustain a surprising share of the vote even in a general election. (It will fall, of course, but maybe not as far as the Tories need it to go.) That prospect increases the chances that …

A Tory MP may well defect

This is UKIP’s best hope of getting an MP at Westminster. A few months ago – when the Tory mood was particularly grim a miserable Conservative moderniser told me it was practically certain someone on his benches would go UKIP before the general election and that it was just a question of who – and of whether it would be only one. Conservative spirits have lifted a bit since then but it isn’t at all hard to imagine an enterprising rightwinger with zero chances of promotion under Cameron, a passionate scorn for the man himself and a solidly loyal local following making the leap.

The Lib Dems have half-completed their journey to something

Seventh place in the South Shields by-election, on less than 2 per cent of the vote. Ouch. Elsewhere, the Lib Dems had a predictably grim night, although they have managed to defend some bastions and their vote has held together in areas where they also hold the Westminster seat. In other words, where they are dug in and can muster some force for a fight, they are still in the game – which will give some cause for encouragement in a general election. In two thirds of Lib Dem Westminster seats, the Tories are in second place. If a bunch of Conservative voters switch to UKIP and Labour people vote tactically, Clegg’s party could have a half decent number of "holds" on a dismal national share of the vote. (The irony is not wasted on Lib Dems that this means the first-past-the-post electoral system is now their friend, while AV would have substantially alleviated Cameron’s UKIP headache. )

But that doesn’t answer the question of what the Lib Dems are for. They plainly aren’t scooping up protest votes or disgruntled anti-Blair, pacifist leftists any more. They are the moderate, technocratic pro-austerity-but-more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger party. They can scrape through a general election on that platform but only just. And beyond that? The Lib Dems have heard a door slam shut behind them and can’t yet see one opening in front of them.

UKIP do small electoral favours for Labour but threaten them in more profound ways

A great big fault line opening up on the right flank of politics can do wonders for a vaguely unified leftish bloc. 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. (This is what Jim Murphy was talking about when he warned against "Lazy Labour" in a recent New Statesman interview.) It is this decay of the base in "safe" areas that has allowed the SNP to make gains in Scotland and let George Galloway into Bradford last year. Labour are very vulnerable to the anti-politics mood too.

This represents a direct intellectual challenge to Miliband. As I argued in my column this week, the Labour leader’s offer to his party is national renewal based on a recognition of seismic changes in the political landscape. Miliband is supposed to have sifted through the ideological wreckage of the financial crisis, anticipated the turn Britain is about to take and positioned himself in the right place to be the chief beneficiary. If that calculation didn’t include a sudden upswing in reactionary populism it ought to have done. I get the impression that, back in 2010, a UKIP surge wasn’t factored into Miliband’s "end of the neo-liberal paradigm" model, which means his political algorithm is in urgent need of adjustment.

Parliament will be hung after 2015

The Conservatives aren’t capable of reaching deep into places that were inaccessible to them in 2010. Labour don’t look like the natural recipients of a huge, uniform anti-incumbent swing. The competition is to be the biggest party in another hung parliament.

Nigel Farage addresses members of the public during a political meeting at the Armstrong Hall in South Shields. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.