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Lazy thinking and the election results

AvalancheSome points challenging the avalanche of lazy thinking tumbling off Mt Politics about the local election results.

Complacency, part one. UKIP did very well, they won 161 seats. It is very silly, as some do, to bang on about the party having zero MPs and not winning any councils. Outside of London, UKIP have put down and strengthened their roots in Tory and Labour-held constituencies alike. The project to replace the Tories, to muscle in on non-Labour working class voters continues apace.

Complacency, part two. In last year’s County Council elections, UKIP polled 23%. This time round it was “just” 17%. That makes a drop of six points and, on the face of it, suggests Farage’s gas guzzler is stalling. This is not the case. Look again. 2013’s were county elections. Those elections were better disposed to express the disgruntled wills of Tories and angry non-Labour voters than Thursday’s mix of metropolitan, unitary and district councils. It’s foolish and wrongheaded to take the difference on face value – it is not a like-for-like comparison.

Complacency, part three. Despite ample evidence of UKIP disproportionately drawing off Tory votes, commentator after pundit after churnalist repeat mantras that the reactionary right menace all three mainstream parties equally. “Hold on a moment Phil, aren’t you being equally complacent by implying the opposite?” No. There are clear patterns to UKIP successes against Labour. In Rotherham, on my own doorstep in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour seats were lost from local authorities we control in the absence of credible, established oppositions.

Take Newcastle. Up until two years ago it was run by a LibDem/Tory lash up. The lingering legacy of recent local incumbency plus generalised anti-government and anti-political grumblings, and the media’s rocket beneath UKIP’s backside prevented the received opposition from benefiting, and why Labour fell back. Likewise, had Stoke-on-Trent City Council been up the established, populist City Independents’ group would have done well at Labour’s expense while UKIP, the Tories, etc, were likely to be left as also-rans.

Complacency, part four. “Labour need to have done better – a two per cent lead in the locals is not enough to win next year.” If this was the case in a conventional second order election, I’d be very worried. But this was not a conventional election. That script has been ripped up by identikit politics and long-term social trends and it won’t be coming back. UKIP have and will continue to remain a contender in local and European elections. Contrary to what “professional” commentators might think, UKIP aren’t about to die. So while talk of four party politics is overstated, it is the new normal for second order elections.

What this means for Westminster elections is what pollsters, such as Lord Ashcroft’s most recent one, have been saying for some time. A very sizeable chunk of UKIP support are very likely to drift back to the mainstream next May, but the remaining UKIP core will stay loyal in numbers sufficient to damage the Tories.

Complacency, part five. There is some truth to Labour not running a decent, national campaign. Volunteers and councillors did the campaigning on the ground. For example, returning to Newcastle more people were spoken to January-May than in the previous 13 years combined. But what is needed is a clear national story that can stitch the local campaigns together, and that largely didn’t happen.

True, some of it was out of the party’s control. You cannot force the BBC to suspend its love-in with Nigel and cover policy announcements on the minimum wage and GP appointments. The leadership, however, chose not to go all-out. Sure, Ed Miliband and the shadcab visited target councils and marginal seats, but that was all. There was little European literature to deliver – I saw none. Nor were there any billboards. Instead we had UKIP’s scapegoating plastered across the nation’s hoardings. Then there was that silly party election broadcast with the incredibly shrinking Clegg.

Okay, I accept the party hasn’t got much money and it is very wise to accumulate resources in advance of next year. However, the implied message this sends out – that Euro and local elections aren’t worth expending cash on – does little to reassure voters who are increasingly anti-Westminster minded.

Complacency, part six. You could be forgiven for thinking the Tories haven’t just lost over 200 seats and 11 councils. Bizarrely, the media have fed this complacency by talking up the impact UKIP have had on Labour’s vote when the real story is how badly mauled the Coalition parties were, and the part UKIP played in damaging the Tories. Similarly, we are told how disunited Labour apparently is while rent-a-gob Tory MPs go round and will tell anyone who listens how badly they need to make a pact with UKIP.

Another favourite is that no party has never won a Westminster election without accruing a majority of council seats. Eric Pickles summed up their complacency on The Sunday Politics this morning. They’re going to keep banging on about their non-existent long-term economic plan, growth figures and immigrant-bashing in the hope it will work. In actual fact, they’re trapped. Just like their economic policy, their strategy for 2015 is now little more than keeping the fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Complacency, part seven. Everyone’s focusing on the results and what they mean for party politics. But this set of elections are potentially significant for a more substantive reason. Last week, I wrote about the amateurism of the barely-noticed No2EU slate and noted how UKIP stood as many local candidates as possible to take advantage of so-called ‘double ticketing’ – the idea voters turning out to support you in one election will automatically vote for you in another ballot taking place simultaneously.

Obviously, at the time of writing the European results are not yet known but I cannot imagine UKIP will reflect their 17% local government vote share. Therefore any gap between that and the local results indicatessplit ticketing, of voting differently in two different elections. If the respective party vote shares are variant to a large degree across the two elections, it points to a further sophistication of the electorate. And if that is the case, those who hope their local positions might be safe off the back of a Westminster turn out next year might find themselves unpleasantly surprised.


  1. Matty says:

    An interesting article, a lot of which I agree with but I am not sure that you have it right regarding the national share of the vote in the para starting Complacency, part two. I understand the 17% that UKIP polled nationally is the BBC estimate of the Projected National Share of the vote. The capitalisation is deliberate as this is not just a matter of totting up all the votes cast. From
    “I should also comment on what the Projected National Share is. It’s not a sum of actual votes cast, it’s a projection of what the results would be if the whole country was voting and the main *three* parties were contesting all seats (it doesn’t assume a UKIP candidate in every seat, though the process of taking only seats where Lab, Con and LD stood means that it does increase the effective level of UKIP contestation). As regular readers will know, there is a cycle of local elections and in some years the councils voting are more Toryish or more Labourish – so for example, last year’s locals were mostly in shire councils, this year’s elections were mostly in metropolitan councils. The PNS attempts to smooth out those differences so you can compare one election to the next – so even if there are some teething problems in accounting for a new party in the PNS, the year to year comparisons should be valid.”

  2. Andy Newman says:

    “talking up the impact UKIP have had on Labour’s vote when the real story is how badly mauled the Coalition parties were,”

    yes, e.g. MEP results in the SW constituency (utterly crucial for the Lib Dems):

    Con -1
    LibDem -1
    UKIP no change
    Lab +1
    Gn +1

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