UKIP’s triumph in the local elections did not just damage the Tories
The overall results of the local elections of 2013 were towards the middle of the spectrum of expectations. A net gain of 291 seats was not at all bad for Labour, and there are several areas where the party now has a chance to exercise local power – Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire with overall majorities; North Tyneside and Doncaster through new elected mayors; and probably some hung councils (particularly Lancashire) where Labour will probably govern as a minority or in coalition. The party is back on the map in many counties where it had been nearly or totally eliminated. So why does it feel such a letdown?
The success of the United Kingdom Independence party casts a shadow over the normal ebb and flow of the main parties’ fortunes. It has become the principal opposition to the Conservatives in places such as Kent, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire. It has also grown into a huge political force in a number of seats where Labour and the Conservatives have traditionally battled it out for white working -class and lower middle-class voters, particularly on the east coast: Waveney, Dover, Great Yarmouth, Thanet, but also in places such as the new towns of Basildon and Redditch.
Labour did so badly in the 2009 county elections that a large swing to the party was to be expected. But comparing the results of this year’s elections with those of last year, there are some causes for concern. Labour’s vote share was down in most places, as might be expected given the UKIP surge, but it was often down a little more than the Conservative vote share. The following tables show the 2012 and 2013 results in a number of local authorities based on key marginal seats.
|Harlow||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %|
|Hastings||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %|
|Ipswich||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %|
|Lincoln||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %|
|Tamworth||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %|
Even in areas where UKIP were either weak or did not put up many candidates, there was a small net swing to the Conservatives since 2012. Overshadowed by the UKIP performance, the Greens also did quite well in several areas, including in the unlikely setting of some normally Tory suburbs of Nuneaton where they defeated the Conservative leader of Warwickshire county council.
|Norwich||Conservative %||Labour %||Liberal Democrat %||UKIP %||Green %|
|Nuneaton and Bedworth||Con %||Lab %||LD %||UKIP %||Green %|
Labour’s showing in the key parliamentary marginals was very uneven. In some seats where the Tories are defending small majorities they hung on to their lead (Waveney, Gloucester, Worcester, South Ribble, Dover) or were only narrowly edged out (Harlow, Redditch, Nuneaton). There were also, it is true, some more convincing Labour victories that should have Tory MPs scanning the employment adverts (Amber Valley, North Warwickshire, Ipswich, Cannock Chase), and some long shots that came in (Gravesham, Leicestershire North West). In one target seat, Great Yarmouth, UKIP actually took the lead.
The UKIP vote has several dimensions. The party is conservative and nostalgic on the one hand, and oppositional on the other. UKIP’s conservatism is attractive primarily to voters on the right of politics, who regret the compromises that the Conservatives have had to make with modern life and feel alienated by the coalition. But parties of the right also exercise a pull for some traditional Labour voters. Parties to the right of the Conservatives have been picking up votes in working-class Labour heartlands for a while – there was only one seat in South Yorkshire (Sheffield Hallam) where they failed to breach 10 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election. The rightwing vote was also more unified than before with the decline of the BNP and the English Democrats, who in 2009 had polled well in some areas, such as Basildon and Dartford, which became UKIP strong points in 2013. In the 2013 local elections this cross-class core rightwing vote was joined by a wave of opposition-minded voters. While from a Labour point of view it is tactically useful for the Conservatives to leach votes to UKIP, the surge in the county elections was so strong that it probably harmed Labour. People who were disenchanted turned to UKIP instead of Labour.
When the former MP for Waveney Bob Blizzard and I examined the disastrous results in the east of England that Labour suffered in 2010, we found a number of things that foreshadowed the UKIP successes of 2013. Former Labour voters seemed particularly concerned about immigration and abuse of the benefits system – and real concerns were often accompanied by a belief in bizarre myths that were very difficult to dislodge. The government and media have made the climate even harsher, for short-term political reasons, but this has created a situation whereby even the coalition’s changes will not whet the appetite for anti-welfare and anti-immigration politics, because no practical solution will suffice. Hence, the rise of UKIP.
It is important to discard a few possibilities when looking at the UKIP vote. It has very little to do with attraction to UKIP’s policies. Public knowledge of those policies is fuzzy at best, and the policies themselves bear little relationship to the real world. UKIP voters seem extraordinarily pessimistic about the economy; there is a zero-sum mentality that seems to have given up on the prospect of growth and sees the only way to advance is at the expense of someone else (and the corollary of this is often that people who are imagined to be doing better, such as immigrants, are doing it at your expense). Voters also like Nigel Farage personally, respond to simple answers to complex problems, and project their own aspirations onto the party – the Sunday Telegraph journalist Iain Martin spoke to a UKIP voter who had somehow picked up the impression that UKIP would be tough on bankers and the City.
UKIP has managed the trick of seeming anti-establishment while in fact pursuing policies that are in the interests of the wealthy, and consisting largely of an archetypal old-fashioned establishment – white, male, ageing and of the home counties. It is a frustrating moment in politics when a force such as this makes the centre-left seem establishment and elitist. Labour has paid a price, in the county elections and in Bradford West last year, for being fairly radical about its diagnosis of what is wrong with the current state of affairs but so cautious about what it proposes to do about it.
The UKIP surge will subside in time, but Labour cannot afford to be complacent. It is pointless to engage in a policy auction with them, but Labour does need to show that it is an insurgent party rather than an arm of the establishment. I hope that people will be looking for responsible solutions to real problems at the next election, but they may not be – the success of Beppe Grillo’s movement in Italy is a warning in this respect. The local elections of 2012 were encouraging for Labour, but those of 2013 show that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. He tweets @Lewis_Baston
See the rest of the May 2013 edition of Progress
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.