The local elections are over and the headline story is clearly one of UKIP breakthrough. The Conservatives did almost exactly as badly as expected, losing around 335 seats and control of 10 councils, Labour did about as well as expected in terms of seats, gaining just under 300, but only two councils (Nottingham and Derbyshire, Staffordshire surprisingly remained Tory). The Liberal Democrat lost a lot of voters, but only around 125 seats. UKIP gained around 140 councillors – doing particularly well in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, both of which fell into No Overall Control with UKIP the second largest party.
The BBC’s Projected National Share of the vote was CON 25%, LAB 29%, LDEM 14%, UKIP 23%. The results for both the Conservatives and Labour are strikingly low… but this is more an artefact of the high level of UKIP support. I’ve said it in almost every post I’ve made this week, but note again what the Projected National Share of the vote is and isn’t.
It is a projection of what the BBC think the shares of local vote would be if there were elections across the whole country and if all four parties stood in every council division. In other words, it takes account and corrects for the fact that only rather Toryish parts of the county voted, and that UKIP and the Lib Dems only stood in three-quarters of the divisions. Secondly, it isn’t the votes that were actually cast – if you totted up the votes cast in every ward on Thursday you’d come up with a different, but probably less meaningful, number. Thirdly, it’s not an attempt to measure or predict national support for a general election – general elections have much higher turnout and, more importantly, people can and do vote differently in them.
However, there are some useful things we can tell from the voting patterns on Thursday, especially about UKIP support. Firstly look at the vote shares and the number of seats won. UKIP got a PNS of 23% (we don’t know what their actual share was, but we’ll work with the projected shares for now), the Liberal Democrats of 14%. However, the Liberal Democrats won 352 seats in total, UKIP 147. It’s an excellent illustration of the importance of vote distribution – look at the detailled results and there are swathes of country where the Lib Dems get truly derisory votes, and strong areas where they win. In comparison UKIP tended to do pretty well across the board, getting lots of second places even where they didn’t win (in the BBC’s key wards they came second more than any other party).
While we’ve seen the general level of UKIP support growing across the country, this is also our first chance to see exactly where it is strong. The places UKIP tended to win the most seats were peripheral towns, outlying places, often the coast, often economic backwaters in a way, places like Boston, Spalding, Great Yarmouth, Thanet, Folkstone, the area around Bognor. Some of these areas, like the Norfolk and Lincolnshire Fens, are areas that have seen high levels of Eastern European immigration. Others are popular retirement locations and we know there is very strong correlation between age and voting UKIP. This seems to make sense, although one should be slightly cautious about accepting conclusions because they seem intuitively correct, there’s plenty more work to be done here.
Finally there is the impact on the political narrative. While I think Labour did pretty respectably, they were clearly overshadowed by UKIP in terms of coverage so it’s not going to give them much momentum. Rather the impact will be all about UKIP – the publicity boost and the further perception that they are a serious player will likely translate into higher levels of support in the polls in the short term at least, but there will also be the impact on the other parties, particularly the Conservatives. The Tories did not do horribly badly, so don’t seem to be in full meltdown, but do look spooked. Already there are lots of Conservative MPs scampering off to the press to tell that that the policy they happen to want to see enacted is also – what a shocker – the key to defeating UKIP.
What the Tories should really do probably deserves a post in its own right, but suffice to say there is no easy answer. UKIP support is driven by various factors – an anti-immigration vote (and anti-EU to some degree), an anti-government vote, and anti-establishment and anti-politics vote. While UKIP is a radical right-wing party rather than a left-wing party, I suspect it also has much in common with the recent successes for parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy – a expression of rage against a political establishment that is only offering unpleasant medicine in already difficult times.
All of these are tricky to deal with – stopping immigration or bringing back major powers from Europe are, in practical terms, almost impossible for Cameron to deliver so he cannot realistically give voters what they say they want on those fronts, he cannot outflank UKIP on those policies and addressing them half-heartedly only puts them up the agenda (or sends the message to people that voting UKIP does successfully move Tory policy!). The party of government can by definition never capture an anti-establishment, anti-politics vote – there will always be some people who dislike both Labour and Conservative and want an alternative, any alternative.
What the Conservatives can seek to do is reduce anti-government voting, they’ll hope by being able to point to some economic progress at some point, by presenting an image of competence and ability, by reducing noises-off and disunity and maintaining a clear message and purpose. Of course, this is probably also the best way for the Conservatives to win support from non-voters, from Labour and Lib Dem voters, or from anyone else (it is also rather dull and obvious advice – govern well – so don’t expect many columnists to waste their time with it).