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The UKIP phenomenon: party makes dramatic gains

The party has already made 42 gains and is averaging 26 per cent of the vote in those areas where it stood.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage answers questions from the media as he canvasses for votes in the South Shields by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Most county councils haven't even begun counting yet, but it's already clear that it's Nigel Farage who'll be wearing the biggest grin today. With seven of 34 councils declared, UKIP has gained 42 seats - two more than it was forecast to gain in total - and is averaging 26 per cent of the vote in those wards where it stood. It is, as the usually restrained pollster John Curtice said, "a phenomenal performance". 

After a comfortable win in the South Shields by-election (in which UKIP finished second), Labour has gained 30 seats and is hoping to win back Derbyshire and possibly Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, three of the four councils it lost in 2009. The party is pointing to gains in marginal seats such as Harlow, Stevenage and Hastings as proof that is recovering in those areas it needs to win for a majority at the next election. 

The Tories have already lost 66 seats and appear likely to perform worse than forecast, with the party prepared for losses of up to 500.

After a humiliating result in South Shields, the Lib Dems are taking comfort from their performance in their strongholds. In the eight Lib Dem parliamentary seats where the result has been declared, the party is averaging 33 per cent of the vote, with the Tories on 31 per cent, UKIP on 22 per cent and Labour on 11 per cent. In a by-election in Nick Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency, the party won the seat on an increased share of the vote, with a 4 per cent swing away from Labour. As in Eastleigh, this is evidence that the Lib Dems are benefiting from an incumbency factor, something that should worry the Tories, who are in second place in 37 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and who need to capture more than half of those if they are to stand any chance of winning a majority in 2015.