“Shock Result in Eastleigh” said one local newspaper. A year after beating the Conservatives into second place in the Eastleigh by-election, what had Ukip done now?
Not a lot. The story of the Eastleigh borough council results was not how well Ukip had done, but how badly. Of the 15 wards being contested, Ukip failed to win any.
Naturally the party saw things rather differently. “A concentration of near misses in wards,” the party’s Director of Communications tweeted. “Strategic goal achieved.” We have come to expect such bluster from Ukip. But in Eastleigh it was a night of not-so-glorious failure for Ukip. It was successfully only if distant second-placed finishes are successful – and Ukip were meant to have evolved beyond that stage. It came second in 10 of the 15 wards. But where were the “near misses”? Ukip only came within 247 votes of the top party in one ward. And this was in elections people care little for, with the average age of voters older (and so more Ukip friendly). For all their derisory poll rating, the Liberal Democrats, who controlled – and still do – 13 of the seats, were a force that Ukip came nowhere close to overcoming. Mr O’Flynn must be very confident to advise “stick a tenner on us to win the seat”. If Nigel Farage is serious about becoming an MP, he won’t be standing in Eastleigh next year.
Last February, Ukip won 27.8% of the vote in Eastleigh. It showed the power of the party’s by-election campaign: polling by Lord Ashcroft found that 31% of Ukip voters made up their minds in the last week of the campaign. Yet the party’s follow-up has been rather less impressive. Lib Dem sources in the seat privately say that Ukip activists have been almost silent since the by-election, and that they regard the Conservatives as the real threat in the general election. Swanning into a seat at by-election time is one thing; remaining a presence thereafter is quite another.
When I visited the seat recently, Ray Finch, Ukip’s candidate there in 2010 and now running for the European Parliament, described the council elections as “more important” than the European ones, and “the real stepping stone to getting MPs elected”. If he’s right, that bodes ill for Ukip in Eastleigh next year.
In a sense Ukip’s failure to convert their promising position in Eastleigh is little surprise – the age demographic is younger, and the unemployment rate lower, than seats in which the party tends to do best in. But it is a reminder of Ukip’s difficulties converting solid support into the concentration necessary for electoral gain – and of the big strategic question Ukip will soon have to confront. Does the party want to maximise its vote share at the general election? Or would it rather focus its resources on perhaps 10 seats to maximise its chances of representation in Westminster? As Eastleigh reminds us, votes count for little when all they yield is copious second-placed finishes.