UKIP exceeds expectations but what do the results tell us?

Karin Bottom

It is now clear that UKIP exceeded most expectations in the local elections on May the 2nd, garnering around 26 per cent of the vote. Yet as the dust settles, we must now ask what these results mean? Of course, at this stage it is hard to be sure and a certain amount speculation is involved but one thing is clear, the mainstream has a fight on its hands.

To label UKIP’s support as mere articulation of protest is naive, simplistic and lazy. More to the point, the ‘protest label’ implies that any vote for parties outside the mainstream – whatever their hue – is pathologically wrong and requires correction: this is not healthy analysis. While a number of voters may well be sending a message to their usual party of choice or just the ‘big three’ in general, a proportion of the population does appear to support UKIP and what it stands for. The sentiments which underpin much of the party’s support are also hard for the mainstream to swallow, particularly on the left and though all three are beginning to see the bigger picture and respond, they can’t escape from the fact that they are all linked with the problems the country faces right now: Labour is seen as responsible while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are denigrated for not reversing the situation. UKIP on the other hand claims to offer the electorate solutions and has no track record of failure, a very attractive quality which – given the right circumstances – can facilitate substantial success.

Yet, perhaps the most interesting questions concerning UKIP ask, what is it exactly? Is it a pressure group or is it a party? Hitherto labelled as a single issue organisation it has never shied away from its long-term key objective which is a retreat from the European Union. Recently though, it has expanded its arguments, rhetoric and goals. Initially marketing itself as a force for change, it now seems to hold a somewhat longer term view of its future.

Before the count was in, Farage’s discussion with Evan Davis on Radio 4’s Today Programme was particularly revealing when he when equated UKIP’s potential for bringing about change with that generated by the SDP’s success in the early 1980s. He argued that UKIP now has the capacity to be part of the political solution and this suggests that the party is developing in a new direction: indeed, the BBC’s Nick Robinson now argues that UKIP has made the transition from pressure group to political party. Only time will tell if this is the case but one thing is for sure, speculation and judgment of UKIP will only intensify.

Next year’s elections to the European Parliament and the 2015 General Election will certainly go some way in establishing the nature of UKIP and the type of organisation it really is; but in the meantime, its message is resonating with a sizeable proportion of the electorate and the mainstream is not sure what to do.

bottom-karin

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory. She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

The parties: UKIP’s support should not be ignored, whatever the outcome

Karin Bottom

To date, the majority of pre-local-election attention has focused on UKIP and its potential to diminish or fracture the mainstream vote; particularly that of the Conservatives. In an environment which has – by any standard – undergone substantial change in recent years, the thought that a comparatively small party has the potential to alter the new status quo is important, especially in the run up to a General Election.

So why is UKIP attracting the support it does? While a number of explanations spring to mind, three stand out.

First, the party’s policies resonate with a sizable portion of the electorate, namely disaffected conservatives and those who feel that the mainstream has failed to address their concerns. Indeed, the majority of polls report the party attracting at least 10 per cent of the vote.

Second, UKIP is the leading small party contender in this contest. The largely decimated BNP provides no opposition and neither do the English Democrats. The Greens – though sizable by small party standards in this country – are beleaguered by voter perceptions which seem unable to associate them with bread and butter politics, and despite the party’s efforts to articulate strong opposition to austerity-related policies, their gains are likely to be minimal.

This leads to the third reason for UKIP’s support: it may well have more to do with the other parties than itself. The electorate is largely unsatisfied with the three main alternatives. Despite the dismal economic situation and unpopularity of the Conservative-led government , Labour’s polls are abysmal for this point in the electoral cycle while the Liberal Democrats are just trying to survive. Most importantly none of the mainstream party leaders seem able to fill the electorate with confidence, and despite the gloomy economic situation – though Cameron and Osborne must be grateful for small mercies, given the narrow avoidance of a triple dip recession – Labour remains unable to secure the electorate’s confidence in its economic policies. All things considered, it is little surprise that UKIP’s policies and Farrage’s charismatic maverick qualities have attracted an audience.

Of course, for every positive, there is at least one negative. Vote intentions do not necessarily predict election day results and even if they did, UKIP would suffer because of its widely distributed support base. As a result, the electoral system will probably produce a very poor votes/seats ratio for the party. Furthermore, turnout is likely to be low as these elections will run alone. This is bad news for UKIP which will not be able to bag a vote for the local council on the back one for the European Parliament, as it did in 2009.

Yet, whatever the results, UKIP’s support to date is important and should not be ignored, even if it sheds more light on the political environment than UKIP itself.

bottom-karin

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory. She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver

This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on  the impact of the Localism Act (and associated  developments in recent years),  Clive Betts MP,  Chair of the Committee,  suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that  that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.

Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever.  In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]

For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that  has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear  rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and  a deeper understanding of the people they represented,  which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.

Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates,  another described  how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who  generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of,  while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..

One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.  

The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work.  For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

bottom-karin

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network.  She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.

thom

Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.


[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan).  Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.

A ‘no’ vote for city mayors does not have to shut down discussion on how local political leadership can be strengthened

Dr. Karin Bottom

Last week, ten English cities voted on whether  to alter the dynamics of leadership in their authorities and replace the current leader and cabinet formula with that of elected mayor, deputy and cabinet.  The rejection was almost unanimous, only Bristol registered a yes vote – but with a majority of less than seven per cent – and more than 60% of voters in Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield   prioritised the status quo above change.   To some this outcome was a surprise, yet  polls prior to the referenda were inconclusive at best and taken in conjunction with the uncertainty surrounding elected mayors, it is hardly surprising that the majority of the electorate chose to stay at home or vote no, average turnout being recorded at a particularly  low 32 per cent.

With a focus on what the office of mayor could do to regenerate cities  and enhance local democracy,  ‘yes’ campaigns were beset with problems from the  start, not least for the reason that pre election, the role of the elected mayor was to be broadly similar to that of council leader: specifics were to be negotiated after taking office and worryingly for some, a substantial amount of the role’s leverage would be the product of personality and an ability to maximise what are often termed as ‘soft’  powers.  Compounding these factors, the office’s confinement to cities – as opposed to regions – suggested that capacity for real change was somewhat more limited than proponents suggested.

Analysis in the aftermath of the referenda suggests that a number of factors contributed to the ‘no’ votes but it  is clear that the overriding sentiments within the electorate were uncertainty and confusion.  Voters were unsure about what they were being asked to endorse or reject and some argue that this explains why the   ‘no’ campaigns were particularly successful at tapping into and harnessing public sentiment.  Taken in the context of austerity, ongoing public service cuts and a generalised dissatisfaction with the political class, it is easy to speculate and suggest that the electorate was unenthusiastic about electing more politicians, especially when the nature of the role was unclear and guidelines for removing poorly performing mayors were minimal to say the very least: to many the office seemed nothing other than a risky and unnecessary expense.

Yet, the results on May 3rd should not shut down discussion on local political leadership. The mayoral model may have been rejected but the issue has not gone away; arguments for stronger more visible city leadership persist and the government has made it clear that it now sees the move towards elected mayors as incremental, cumulative and progressive: in this sense the debate continues.  Yet, now it might be useful to shift the focus somewhat and think about how leadership can be nurtured and maximised in the 339 non mayoral authorities in England because there is nothing to suggest that the qualities which comprise strong leadership sit only within the purview of  an elected mayor.  While  Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart take up their new mayoral posts  in Liverpool and Salford, they do so alongside 124 other English authorities which also underwent some form of political reconfiguration last week: it will be interesting to see  whether  the issues which catalysed the mayoral referenda will impact on future leadership dynamics in those local  authorities.

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.