COVERAGE of the 2013 local election campaign, which reaches its culmination today, has been dominated by a party with only a handful of council seats, and no previous record at all in local government. Nigel Farage’s Ukip has been riding high in the polls, with some suggesting it may secure 20 per cent or more in today’s elections. The party is also standing candidates in three quarters of the seats in this year’s contest, up from only a quarter in 2009. Its potential to disrupt is now so much greater.
The Conservatives have the most to worry about as the results roll in tomorrow. This was already going to be a difficult election cycle for them, as they try to hold on to a huge haul of over 1,400 seats won in 2009, when their popularity was at its peak and Labour was in crisis. Moreover, these elections are being fought mainly in rural county councils – Tory home turf. Recent polling analysis suggests that up to one in five Conservative voters are defecting to Ukip.
But does this mean we can expect a great wave of purple rosettes entering the shire town halls on Friday? Perhaps not. Ukip still faces a huge challenge from Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Its support tends to be very evenly spread, which makes it hard for the party to convert votes into victories. And the Conservatives are sufficiently popular in the shires that their incumbent councillors often have large majorities. It is quite possible that Ukip will earn a lot of strong second places, but will end up throwing very few Conservative councillors out of their jobs. The crucial question will be whether Farage’s party has learned how to build effective local campaigns to concentrate support.
But the Ukip challenge in 2013 also poses interesting questions for the Liberal Democrats and Labour. In rural shire England, Labour is often so weak that the Lib Dems have traditionally provided the main local opposition. A surge by Ukip could see the ‘kippers usurp this role. This would be a big worry for Nick Clegg’s party, which has traditionally built campaigns for Westminster on the back of strong local parties.
For Labour, the cause for concern is the kind of people switching to Ukip. They are primarily older, economically struggling, working class voters. Three years into a government defined by stagnation and austerity, such voters should by defecting in droves to the main opposition party. Yet Labour has not found a way to reconnect with these people, who have become deeply disaffected from mainstream politics.
They find Farage and Ukip better reflect a worldview defined by traditional values, anxiety about change, hostility to immigration, and opposition to the EU. Labour’s local performance in 2009 was so weak that it seems certain to recover. That recovery looks set to be blunted, however, by the continued inability of Ed Miliband’s party to find an effective message which speaks to many of the older blue collar voters, struggling to keep their heads above water in Britain today.
Dr Rob Ford is a politics lecturer at the University of Manchester. He is also co-author with Matthew Goodwin of Revolt on the Right, to be published next year.