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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.