UKIP have once again hit the headlines today following yesterday’s local and European election. If we are to believe the headlines UKIP have made “significant gains” and if we are to believe Nigel Farage himself UKIP are now “serious players”. There seems to be a tendency to equate local electoral gains with success on a national and European level. All of these conclusions have been drawn when European votes will not be counted until Sunday and the majority of local councils (as at the time of writing) have yet to declare. Certainly UKIP now have a stronger media presence, which is quite an achievement for a party still without seats in Westminster. However, after the local elections last year I wrote some words of caution against over emphasizing the impact of UKIP gains at a local level. So, some more preliminary words of caution as today’s results continue to come in.
We can’t draw conclusions from a piece-meal election
As with last year not all councils are being contested. Where there are elections taking place, not all seats are necessarily up for grabs. Local government elections in England are staggered over several years meaning we cannot draw conclusions about country-wide local political trends after one or two years of elections. Rather we need to look at an aggregate picture over a four year period, in which case UKIP’s performance is still significantly weaker compared with the other parties.
This isn’t a landslide
A quick look at the results at the time of writing this show that UKIP have won 92 seats so far. This is out of a total of 1,917 seats declared so far, or 4.8%. This certainly doesn’t represent a significant shift in power and certainly doesn’t mean UKIP are serious players, on the local level at least.
Still no control
As yet, UKIP have been unable to gain overall control of any of councils. As I wrote in the last year’s post, if you have no control, you have no power in local government. On this point UKIP’s gains are minor. At the very best, gains they’ve made have pushed councils into no overall control. To have any meaningful impact on local politics, UKIP need to be converting their gains in seats to gains in council control, and there’s still a very long way for them to go to achieve this goal.
This is still a local election
We need to remember that this is a local election. Indeed UKIP still have no MPs in Westminster and today’s result does nothing to change that. Those newly elected UKIP councillors will have no influence in Westminster and no influence in Europe, so they are not in a position to achieve UKIP’s core policy goals around EU withdrawal and immigration. Indeed, what UKIP stands for at a local level is rather unclear. As with last year’s election, the new UKIP councillors will be expected to perform their local duties diligently, and failure to do so will likely lead to a short term in office.
Are UKIP just a protest vote?
Local and European elections are of course traditionally ‘second order’ elections: turnout is lower and the ‘protest vote’ has a larger effect. This leads to the question of whether or not the gain in UKIP councillors is down to the success of UKIP and the appeal of their message or a growing dissatisfaction with the ‘main’ parties and politics in general. So far UKIP seem to have done well where there is a dissatisfaction with local councils and the party in control; Portsmouth is a good example here. So are the electorate voting for UKIP or are they punishing those in charge? UKIP’s real test will therefore come with the general election next year.
Are local councillor’s UKIP’s weak spot?
It is also worth remembering that UKIP is still relatively young and lacks the mostly well-oiled organization of the traditional parties. The majority of those controversial comments made by UKIP candidates and jumped on by the media have come from those standing in local elections. Now some of these candidates have been elected to office, scrutiny of their actions and words will increase and only put the pressure on UKIP to shake off the negative perceptions a lot of the electorate hold about them. Furthermore, at a local level UKIP seems to lack party discipline and organization, as perfectly illustrated in this incident. Something to keep an eye on is how many UKIP councillors will either defect to other parties or become independent over the course of their terms.
As today progresses we’ll get a better idea of how UKIP have done in this election, but they’re unlikely to become a major political force at the local level just yet. Nationally, UKIP’s performance in the European elections will give a stronger indication of their performance, but their real test will be the general election next year.