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  1. Politics
3 May 2013

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.

By Rafael Behr

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 …

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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.

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