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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.