One of the biggest surprises of my political life was walking into the count for Waveney’s 2013 county council elections. In the midterm of a Tory government I had expected that Labour would win all eight of the Lowestoft wards, all won by the Tories in the disaster of 2009. But on each counting table there were three big piles of ballot papers mounting up. In the event, Labour won five and the United Kingdom Independence party won three, with not much to choose between the three parties in the overall vote share across the district.
Yes, it was a Tory wipeout in Lowestoft, but it was clear that Ukip had not only won three seats we should have gained, it made it a close call in those we did win. We had been told that Ukip took votes mainly from the Tories, but if that were the case it meant ‘Tories’ outpolling us almost two to one in Lowestoft – unheard of even in the worst of times. I also saw that Ukip had a similar impact in other parts of East Anglia where we usually win council seats in the midterm of a Tory government.
It therefore irked me that the main message from Labour high command afterwards was that Ukip mostly takes Tory votes, to our advantage. Well, we did not have council elections in Waveney this year, but when I saw the results elsewhere, I could not help saying ‘I told you so!’
So what is happening? It is true that Ukip has done well in European elections in the east and elsewhere since 2004, and the strong turnout of anti-European sentiment impacted on council elections held on the same day. But this was not the case in 2013. Neither is the rise in Ukip support confined to the east coast, as Lewis Baston and Marcus Roberts demonstrate in their analysis for the Fabian Society.
The first Ukip voters and their original activists seem to be older former Tories. But, based on the people I meet on the doorstep in Waveney, many of their increased numbers are ordinary people who I would like to see voting for me. Indeed, several of them say they will vote for me in 2015.
Some are people who have voted Labour most of the time and some are those who have not voted at all in recent elections, but the most significant are people who did vote Tory last time but are not necessarily regular Tory voters. They are now thoroughly fed up with David Cameron’s government and we could normally expect them to rebound back to Labour, but now they have somewhere else to go. Losing these votes could have a real impact in 2015.
So what can we do? First, do not attack Ukip on things that almost certainly will not be in its next manifesto, even though they may have been in its last. Second, we must not allow ourselves to be characterised as ‘the party of open door immigration’. We need a strong message that we will control migration to match Britain’s needs. Whatever instrument of policy we put forward, a points system or other, we must espouse it with conviction and repeat it often.
Third, on all other key issues, we have to show we have positive, down-to-earth policies that will make a difference to the lives of people who feel they have been left behind. Ed Miliband’s 10-point plan to help people with the cost of living is an excellent menu, but, apart from the freeze on energy prices, hardly anyone is yet aware of the others.
Fourth, Ukip may use high-profile poster boards and rely on Nigel Farage’s charisma, but they do not have many troops on the ground. At local level we must show we are there for people all year round, on the issues that really matter, not just asking for votes at election times.
Some who voted Ukip in May are already saying they will vote differently in 2015. We have to work hard to win our share of those votes back. Michael Ashcroft polled the marginal seat of Waveney in April, before the final Ukip surge. It showed Lab 38; Con 31; Ukip 21; changing to Lab 41; Con 30; Ukip 18 when asked to consider local candidates. I would say that is a fairly accurate reflection of Ukip support I am currently finding on the doorstep. So what happens to those Ukip votes could make all the difference.
Bob Blizzard is prospective parliamentary candidate and former member of parliament for Waveney. He tweets @BobJBlizzard
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