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.


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.

Bristol: The Start of an Independents Revolution?

Martin Stott

As the only city to hold a mayoral referendum last May and vote in favour, Bristol confirmed its reputation as a city that marches to the beat of a different drum. The mayoral election in November reinforced this maverick status with electors decisively (albeit on a turnout of only 27.9%) electing Independent candidate George Ferguson as Mayor.

The idea of elected mayors has been around for over a decade, one imported uncritically from the US and grafted onto the existing system of local government here. Catherine Durose in her blog ‘Elected mayors: the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ argues that seeing elected mayors as the solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ is wrong. It certainly hasn’t fired up voters, with nine out of the ten cities conducting referenda in May rejecting them –  as they did when asked during earlier attempts by New Labour to introduce the concept outside London.

Durose is right in observing that almost all the elected mayors that do exist are already mainstream politicians (ex-MPs or council leaders) and this makes Bristol’s choice more interesting. George Ferguson is a colourful architect and entrepreneur with a track record in making things happen, including the Tobacco Factory in Southville, a multi-use regeneration project that includes café, bistro, apartments and a theatre. Despite his history  a Liberal Democrat – he only resigned from the party in May –  Ferguson stood as an Independent and won decisively, beating the favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, by 37,353 (54.4%) to 31,259 (46.6%)  on the second round. He also led by a substantial margin in the first round.

One of the interesting aspects of the result is just how badly the three main parties did, obtaining  between them, just 45% of the vote in the first round. The Bristol Post described Ferguson as making ‘mincemeat of the three major parties’.  While this appears to be true, it is also a reflection of the profound disconnect between party politics and the voter, expressed nationally in the very low turnout for Police and Crime Commissioners on the same day  – as does the election of 12 independent candidates as PCCs.

In Bristol, Labour claimed afterwards that Ferguson won because the Tory and Lib Dem vote collapsed. This is partly true – neither of them even managed 10%, but it begs questions about Labour’s ability to connect with and energise voters too. There was a distinct split across the city in terms of turn out, with relatively high percentages in middle class areas like Henlease (43%), Clifton, Redland, Bishopston, Windmill Hill and Westbury-on-Trym but really poor turn outs in Labour strongholds like Southmead, St George, Filwood and Hartcliffe (11%). The result of the mayoral election may have been important to the Labour Party, but its voters don’t seem to have agreed.

Four days before the vote, Ferguson held an ‘Independents gathering’ in the Tobacco Factory theatre. The audience, numbering well over 100, was surprisingly large for a Monday afternoon event.  With him on the stage were Independent veteran ex-MP Martin Bell, independent candidates from Liverpool and London and Independent PCC candidate for Avon and Somerset Sue Mountstevens. Bell, though very supportive, clearly thought that like the Liverpool and London independents, Ferguson and Mountstevens were going to be another pair of plucky losers. By the end of the week both had won, Mountstevens with the largest PCC mandate in the country, and Ferguson humiliating all the mainstream political parties. We may yet record that ‘the march of the independents’ started out in Bristol.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.