Ukip’s local success makes them a fourth force in British politics

It was hardly a surprise that the UK Independence Party did well in England’s local elections.

In an age of rampant political antipathy, their voters represent the three ‘Ds’, a trinity of problems for mainstream political parties: dissatisfied, disapproving, and distrustful.

However, the scale of Ukip’s performance defied expectations. Apart from in London, they gained seats across the country in these elections (with 161 local authorities holding polls this year).

With the general election approaching in less than a year’s time, eyes will be on how Labour and the Conservatives respond to the rise of Ukip. Experts had assumed that Ukip would gain around 100 seats, and despite this prediction coming true, they will not be in charge of any councils, and will have fewer councillors than their rivals. Yet this cannot take away from the fact that they can now be considered a fourth national political force.

Ukip’s success points to the widespread antipathy felt towards Westminster, and it is telling that its gains were made outside of  the capital. Indeed, the main narrative in the run up to the elections was how the Ukip vote would affect the Conservatives, as the main party in government. Some high-profile Tories espoused the new message “Vote Ukip, get Labour”, in an attempt to persuade voters that supporting Ukip in the long-term could split the Tory vote and lead to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, becoming prime minister.

However, Ukip’s performance in the north of England have shown that Ukip are as much of a threat to Labour as the Conservatives. Labour has made only modest gains, and their overall share of the vote is set to be disappointing. At the time of writing, Labour has gained control of six councils but has lost control of Thurrock, in Essex, where Ukip performed well.

Members of Labour’s campaign team today suggested that the Ukip vote could help Labour win the general election next year, but others in the party have expressed concern that this kind of complacency typifies the manner in which Labour has handled the Ukip threat.

There is already a backlash: some Labour MPs have questioned Miliband’s judgement and the failure of Labour to take on Ukip. One MP said that the leadership ran a “tremendously ill-judged campaign”.

The Conservatives will be happy with their performance: although they lost control of eight councils, and almost 100 seats at the time of writing, they will have taken comfort from the fact that Labour’s progress has been limited.

The major impact of the results has been the opening of an internal party debate about how the party engages with Ukip, with some right-wing MPs calling for a pact with the anti-EU party. Billed as ‘in-fighting’ by parts of the media, this intervention was largely expected, and most of the Conservative Party is united in its approach to Ukip: even some renowned rebels have opposed a pact with Ukip.

As for the Conservatives’ coalition partners at Westminister, the Liberal Democrats, their battering was widely predicted. The party lost dozens of seats, including control of Kingston-upon-Thames Council in South-East England.

With the local elections out of the way, politicians will now be braced for the announcement of the European Parliament election results on Sunday with a strong inkling of what might happen.

Then, it is on to the general election. There will be lots of conjecture over the coming months, and it will be interesting to see how, and if, the main political parties change their tactics towards Ukip.

Burson-Marsteller UK public affairs team, London

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