Welcome, UKIP – the future’s bright, but do clear out those defeated councillors

Chris Game

One of the minor hypotheses in Chris Game’s general theory of local elections concerns the correlation between a party’s rating of its own current fortunes and the accuracy of its councillor listings on its national website.  In brief: the greater the optimism, the greater the accuracy.

So it saddens me to report that, however upbeat may be the headlines emerging from UKIP’s annual conference here in Birmingham Town Hall this weekend – the party’s proposed name and logo changes, defections of ‘Top Tories’, favourable opinion polls – its website managers, if not the party itself, are hedging their bets.

This year’s local elections weren’t great for the UK Independence Party, soon to be known officially simply as UKIP. They fielded more candidates than ever before, but that’s about as far as it got – and in London it didn’t get even that far. Some party apparatchik overlooked – or possibly was instructed to overlook – the small technicality of putting the party’s name on the mayoral candidate nomination form. So Lawrence Webb, selected by London UKIP members as their candidate, had to stand under the label ‘Fresh Choice for London’.

Whether, with some indication of his party affiliation, Webb would have mustered more than 2.1% of first preference votes we’ll never know, but I remember thinking he was perhaps missing a trick. Personally, I’d have tried to make the best of a bad job, used all six words permitted on the ballot paper, risked the ‘Vote for a veg’ barbs, and gone for ‘Webb’s Wonderful – Fresh Choice for London’.

The London Assembly elections were no better for UKIP, the party failing to regain the two seats it had lost four years earlier. Nationally too it made no net advance on its rather modest 27 elected members of principal councils.

In the West Midlands, Birmingham itself has never offered great encouragement, and this year was no exception, the highest UKIP vote being 4% in the Perry Barr ward. In the past, the Black Country boroughs have provided the party with at least a few seats, but the defeat in Dudley of Malcolm Davis – Lib Dem-turned-UKIP councillor and fierce opponent, along with the English Defence League, of the now jettisoned town centre ‘mega-mosque’ – ended even that modest representation.

Four months later, though, the UKIP website is still in denial, and likewise about Newcastle-under-Lyme, where its fall from grace has been even sharper.

In 2010 Newcastle, remarkably but genuinely, had the highest concentration of UKIP councillors in the country, with 23 at all levels from county to parish. It was also one of the 21 constituencies where in the General Election UKIP could claim to have deprived David Cameron of an overall majority – its 8.1% vote share exceeding Labour’s 4% majority over the Conservatives.

But that was then. In this May’s elections the last two of the five UKIP borough councillors lost their seats as Labour swept to power, and the fact that the national website still displays their pictures would normally strike me as the behaviour of a party that fears its best days may be behind it.

Which would be surprising, because they’re surely not – whether you look at current opinion polls or the electoral playing field over the coming months.

First, the polls. In the most recent, by YouGov for Wednesday’s Sun, ‘topline’ voting intention figures put Labour ahead with 43%, the Conservatives on 34%, and the Lib Dems and UKIP level on 8%.  Even as it stands, this was clearly good pre-conference news for UKIP, and dire news for the Lib Dems as they were assembling in Brighton. However, there are good reasons for supposing that, if anything, these figures understate UKIP’s true position.

YouGov, like almost all the leading polling companies, does not prompt respondents by specifically mentioning UKIP in its voting intention question: ‘If there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for? Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat [in rotated order], some other party, would not vote, don’t know.’

Common sense and solid research both suggest that, if UKIP were mentioned by name, it would attract at least some additional support – as indeed would probably be true for the Greens, the BNP and the English Democrats.  One pollster does do this, Survation (a not terribly imaginative abbreviation of ‘surveying the nation’), currently pollster to The Mail on Sunday.

In that paper’s most recent poll, those respondents intending to vote in the next election put Labour on 36.6%, the Conservatives on 29.4%, the Lib Dems on 9.8% … and UKIP on 12.2%.

It’s a toss-up which of the two Coalition parties is the more spooked by such figures. Immediately, probably, it’s the Lib Dems, whose monthly poll ratings from 1997 to 2011 never once dropped below double figures, but are now starting to do so regularly.

Longer term, it must inevitably be the Conservatives who, even as early as the Corby by-election (probably in November), could find UKIP pushing them into third place in serious elections. And as the General Election approaches, they will need no reminding that, without winning a single seat, UKIP can still inflict major damage.

As for UKIP, almost all voting opportunities over the next 18 months, including those next year for the county councils, are just rehearsals for the elections they were born for: the European Parliament elections in June 2014, just 11 months before that General Election.

Able to focus fully on their anti-EU, anti-immigration programme, and aided for once by an electoral system that doesn’t discriminate against them, UKIP invariably do well in the Euros, not least in the West Midlands. In 2009 the region gave them their second best regional result: a 21% vote share (compared with 16.5% nationally) and two of their 13 Strasbourg seats – perhaps at least a minor reason why they’re honouring us this weekend with their annual shindig.

In addition to the cosmetic name change, the party is also abandoning its famous £ sign logo – about the most widely recognised party symbol around – on the grounds that the battle to save sterling from the euro is now indisputably won.  The new UKIP battle is already well underway, one that seems unlikely to last a full decade and could quite conceivably be won in 2014: top the Euro-polls and force the Government to concede a straight in-out EU referendum.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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