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.

Thursday’s local elections: Catzilla and the county councils

Chris Game

I really wish sometimes – OK, occasionally – that I still did my British Government undergraduate lectures. This would be revision season, with lectures atypically well attended, by previously unseen students hoping for hints about exam questions. And there’d be the local elections, and the opportunity to point out once more that, as students, many of them could not only register twice, at home and at their term-time address, but also in these elections vote twice – and try to persuade them to do both at least once.

It’s not easy. Post-election opinion polls tell us that in the 2010 General Election, for example, 56% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote, compared to 35% of all electors and only 24% of over-65s. They don’t usually tell us, though, that most of those 56% couldn’t vote, because they weren’t even registered. The Electoral Commission can, though, and their statistics on the inaccuracy of electoral registers are alarming. Using known population growth rates, the Commission reckoned the April 2011 registers, showing an electorate of around 45 million, were 15% inaccurate, that at least 6 million people in GB were unregistered, and among 17-24 year olds the non-registration rate was 44%.

The Commission runs regular campaigns to promote registration, this year’s being clearly aimed at these elusive young people. I’m not sure about its effectiveness, but I’d certainly use it, and I can recall few visual aids of whose student appeal I would be more confident. ItsYourVote is a website whose home page comprises a satellite image of the UK, and a warning that “Without a vote, you have no say in what happens in your local area”. To learn what fearful fate that might be, you enter your postcode, whereupon the satellite homes in and you discover that, should you fail to register, “come election time, you may as well be vaporised by Catzilla’s rainbow laser eyes”, or possibly seized by a massive disco fairground grabber, or swept up by a giant ice cream scoop.

catzilla
Source: ItsYourVote

The Daily Mail thinks the website “absurd” and an appalling waste of public money. But I fear it misses the subtlety. While obviously the ice cream scoop is a bit silly, you can see that Catzilla, though provoked by the under-registration of Birmingham University students, has been impressively selective in his vaporisation of our Edgbaston campus – wiping out the Law faculty and the entire University administration, but leaving untouched, for instance, the Muirhead Tower and my civic-savvy, fully registered INLOGOV colleagues.

As it happens, the Commission’s efforts would be wasted on most of our students this year, for, as noted in my elections preview blog, this is the one year in four when the metropolitan boroughs like Birmingham, along with most unitary authorities and shire districts, don’t elect any of their councillors. This leaves just 37 councils in England plus one in Wales holding any kind of local elections this week, and, with that first blog having at least briefly covered those in the 8 unitaries and the mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside, the remainder of this one will focus on the 27 county councils.

They were previously elected in 2009, when Labour’s standing in the opinion polls was desperate – 16% behind the Conservatives, at 23% to 39%, with the Liberal Democrats on 19%. Reflecting those figures, the Conservatives, the dominant party anyway in this tier of local government, won nearly nine times as many seats as Labour – 1,261 to 145, with the Lib Dems taking 346 – and took majority control of every one of the 27 councils except Cumbria, where they became the leading party in a Conservative/Labour/Independent coalition.

2009 is therefore the baseline against which to assess the prospects and eventual performance of the various political parties, whose standings in the polls today are, of course, dramatically different. In this week’s Sunday Times YouGov poll, Labour have a 9% lead (40% to 31%) over the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems and UK Independence Party (UKIP) level on 11%, and the Greens on 3%. These figures indicate a Conservative –> Labour swing of nearly 13% since 2009, and no swing at all between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. It’s a blunt measure, but about the best we have for assessing the electoral chances of the major parties.

In the same poll, incidentally, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, gets a higher rating as a party leader – 44% saying he’s doing a good job – than Cameron (36%), Ed Miliband (29%), or Nick Clegg (21%). Partly because of headlineable findings like these, and partly because they are a real, but unpredictable, threat to all parties in these elections, UKIP have, as Karin Bottom noted last week, been attracting the bulk of media attention. In terms of seats, though not councils, gained, they will undoubtedly be among Friday’s winners – indeed, it’s about the one knowable thing about them – but mainly because they’ve virtually nothing to lose.

UKIP like boasting of their “army of councillors sitting on borough, town, county and parish councils across the UK”. This army, though, would make Gideon’s little band of soldiers that took on the Midianites seem like a legion. In fact, its massed ranks contain just over 100 town and parish councillors (out of 75,000) and about 30 on principal authorities – including 11 (out of 1,800+) on county councils. And there’s a similar economy with the truth in its manifesto claim that “where UKIP is in charge of local government, we use that power to cut costs … we believe that council taxes should go down, not up”. Back on Earth, the only local government of which UKIP has ever had charge is Ramsey Town Council in Huntingdonshire, Cambs., and since taking ‘power’ in 2011 they have ‘slashed’ the council tax precept by +28%, from £42.56 on Band D to £54.61 in 2012-13.

Council tax rates are, quite properly, a big issue in these elections, but hardly a straightforward one. First, Coalition Government ministers have from the outset done their utmost to set – that is, freeze – all councils’ tax and spending totals themselves, by bribing them with limited and potentially disadvantageous freeze grants. Second, it is the districts, not the county councils being elected this week, who are the billing authorities who will have sent out the bills and be trying to collect the taxes, even though it’s the counties who do about 90% of the actual spending.

Third, this year, although almost all counties obediently accepted their one-off grant deals and froze their tax precepts, well over a third of the districts refused them and raised their tax bills – more than half of whom were Conservative-controlled. So, does a voter in one of these ‘naughty’ districts, urged by David Cameron to vote Conservative for lower council taxes, punish the council that raised its tax or reward the county that didn’t?

It’s nothing like as simple as, for instance, street-lighting. It’s not, perhaps surprisingly, a statutory obligation for any council, but, if your street lights are being dimmed or switched off in the interests of economy, it’s almost certainly the county who control the photo-electric timers. So, either way, if you approve of the cost and carbon savings, or disapprove of jeopardising safety and security, you know how to vote.

So how many of the 27 counties, all Conservative today, will be differently controlled come Friday? In Cumbria, the one that half got away in 2009, Labour in recent years has usually had a plurality, if rarely a majority, and will be looking to regain that position of largest single party. However, a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was elected in November, and, as elsewhere, Ed Miliband’s claim to be “fighting for every vote” is undermined by the party fielding 14 fewer candidates than in 2009, while Greens are up from 15 to 31, UKIP from 4 to 52, and, in another sign of the times, the British National Party (BNP) down from 41 to 9.

While becoming largest party may be fine in Cumbria, in the four councils Labour held virtually uninterruptedly from 1981 until 2005, anything short of winning back majority control will surely count as failure. Derbyshire was numerically the Conservatives’ narrowest capture, with 33 of the council’s 64 seats, and they have already lost that overall majority, with one councillor having to resign for unsavoury personal reasons and another switching allegiance to UKIP. Even a modest swing should do. Nottinghamshire is much trickier, for in 2009 Labour lost seats variously to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, UKIP (in Ashfield), and assorted Independents, especially in Mansfield. A straight swing of even 10% from the Conservatives might not be enough, but a repeat of those with which they won by-elections in Worksop and Rufford certainly would. In Lancashire too Labour need almost to reverse the trouncing they suffered at the hands of all parties, including the Greens and BNP. A 5% swing from the Lib Dems in Burnley, where they have already won back one seat in a by-election, and a 10% swing from the Conservatives elsewhere should do it – even without ousting the notoriously independent Idle Toad, Tom Sharratt, from his South Ribble fastness.

If Lancashire was a trouncing, Staffordshire was a bloodbath, from which Labour crawled out with just 3 of its former 32 seats. With nearly two-thirds of divisional boundaries having been changed, it is difficult even to assess the scale of the task of regaining majority control from such a tiny base, the most promising guide being perhaps the results in the three districts that held elections last year. In both Cannock Chase and Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour took majority control of the council by gaining a total of 15 seats from the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and in Newcastle also from UKIP. In Tamworth too they won seats from the Conservatives, and across the three councils there was an average Conservative –> Labour swing since 2009 of 14%, which, repeated on Thursday, would indeed have been sufficient, without boundary changes, for Labour to reverse the horrors of 2009. In November, on the other hand, the electorate – or a very small portion of them – preferred a Conservative PCC.

Had the Lib Dems gone into opposition in 2010, rather than national coalition, they too would be aiming to regain the councils they lost in 2009: Somerset, Devon and, although it became a single-county unitary at the same time, Cornwall. But two years of depressing opinion polls and local election results are taking their toll, and Devon, for example, seems to be one of several counties in which UKIP candidates will outnumber Lib Dems. Indeed, Ilfracombe, in Lib Dem hands for years, appears to be being surrendered without even a defence.

Somerset, where almost all contests are between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and the latter were in majority control for most of the period between 1993 and 2009, is a much stronger prospect. Again, extensive boundary changes make projections difficult, but even a 5% Conservative –> Lib Dem swing on existing boundaries would be enough for the Lib Dems to regain control. But, as noted above, there’s been no perceptible swing at all, and the easy victory of an Independent in the Avon & Somerset PCC election may suggest that this is particularly promising territory for independents and smaller parties.

As for the rest, it might seem that in these uncertain times, if a case can be made for Staffordshire being recoverable by Labour from a councillor base of three, almost anything is possible. Well, yes – but realistically, even a really good result for Labour would probably be limited to depriving the Conservatives of their overall control in a few more councils. One could be Warwickshire, which, as a minority administration Labour have run for longer in recent years than have the Conservatives, and another Northamptonshire, one of apparently a small handful who are all claiming to have “the lowest council tax set by any of the 27 shire counties in England”.

Clearly they can’t all be right, and, this being an academic blog, I feel it’s appropriately pedantic to close by citing the relevant House of Commons note reporting that Northamptonshire’s Band D equivalent precept of £1,028.11 is in fact only third lowest, behind Staffordshire (£1,027.25) and Somerset (£1,027.30).

game

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.

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.

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.