What UKIP’s EU election win means for Britain’s top parties

In last month’s European parliamentary elections, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) became the first British political party other than Labour or the Conservatives to win a national poll in more than 100 years. Political and media reaction to UKIP’s victory has ranged from hyperbolic to head-in-the-sand.

Echoing the words of UKIP’s pint-sized, pint-loving leader, Nigel Farage, media commentators talked up the “political earthquake.” In contrast, many politicians from the established parties dismissed UKIP’s election upset as a midterm protest. In reality, the Euro elections, which took place on the same day as local polls in many parts of England, revealed mixed fortunes for all British parties, including UKIP.

Winning 27.5 percent of the vote and more than doubling their number of members in the European Parliament (MEPs) to 24, UKIP clearly achieved a good result in the European election. Furthermore, by winning a Euro seat in every region of Britain, UKIP demonstrated their national appeal. Yet, the election results were not all good news for UKIP. In English local elections, UKIP’s vote dropped at least 5 percentage points from 2013, falling from 23 to 17 percent. Yet, despite receiving fewer votes than in 2013, UKIP won far more council seats this year, thanks to an increased concentration in its voter share.

Worrying for the other parties, UKIP’s strategy of targeting key marginal seats seems to be working. Whether the party can translate its winning formula from local and European elections to a general election, however, remains doubtful. Despite winning 161 new council seats, UKIP does not control a single town hall and has only a third as many councilors as the politically toxic Lib Dems.

Britain’s first-past-the-post parliamentary electoral system makes its difficult for small parties to win Westminster seats. UKIP currently enjoys 18 percent support in national opinion polls, but this may not be enough to deliver the party its first member of Parliament in the May 2015 general election.

Although almost half of British voters share UKIP’s Euro-skepticism, very few put the EU at the top of their list of political priorities. Many voters may be have been tempted by UKIP in the European elections — which are after all about Europe — but far fewer will support the party in a general election.

Despite a majority of UKIP voters admitting to being former Tories, many in the media portrayed UKIP’s Euro election victory as a defeat for second-place Labour, rather than the third-place Conservatives. Although Labour is the first main opposition party not to win in European elections since 1984, the party did increase its MEPs from 13 to 20.

In local elections, Labour picked up more than 300 seats and took control of six additional councils. A poll of current voting intentions in key marginal parliamentary constituencies by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft found that Labour would win a comfortable majority in a general election. Ashcroft’s findings suggest that if a general election were held today, the Conservatives would lose 83 seats.

Yet media analysis of the European election results focused criticism on Labour leader Ed Miliband rather than on Conservative leader Prime Minister David Cameron. Miliband has come under fire because Labour gains against an unpopular Conservative-led government should have been higher.

Even Miliband’s supporters have admitted that Labour’s wins were not enough to guarantee victory in a general election that is now just one year away. Labour is ahead of the Conservatives by 12 percent in key marginal seats, but Miliband remains less popular with voters than Cameron.

In key seats, 29 percent of voters are satisfied with David Cameron as prime minister, while an equal number would prefer to see Miliband as PM. But crucially, 28 percent of those dissatisfied with Cameron would still prefer him as prime minister to Miliband. Although Labour has begun to put together an attractive manifesto to help Britain’s struggling families, Miliband is an obstacle to voters connecting with Labour.

Miliband’s leadership woes provide comfort for the Conservatives. Despite being pushed into third place for the first time in the party’s history, the Tories polled only a few percent behind Labour in the European elections, winning 19 Euro seats to Labour’s 20. Moreover, no one expected the Conservatives to do well in this election.

Governing parties never win European elections in Britain. In 1999, Tony Blair lost the European elections to the Conservatives, but this did not stop him trouncing his Tory rivals in the 2001 general election. The Conservatives also take heart from growing public confidence in Britain’s economic recovery.

Two-thirds of voters are optimistic about the economy, a confidence that is likely to grow, benefiting the Conservatives before next year’s general election.

Between now and then, Cameron will position the Conservatives as the middle ground between UKIP’s “swivel-eyed loons” on the right and a socialist Labour Party on the left that would snuff out economic recovery with its spendthrift policies.

The problem for Cameron is that Britain’s Labour-biased electoral system makes it very difficult for the Conservatives to win an outright majority, especially with UKIP stealing votes from his right flank. And moving to the right in order to woo former Tories away from UKIP risks forsaking support from moderate Conservatives.

Coming a poor fifth behind the Green Party and losing 10 of its 11 MEPs, the Liberal Democrats will have to strain their eyes to see a silver lining in the European election results. Yet Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg deserves credit for being the only party leader to put the positive case for Europe in TV and radio debates against Farage.

In local elections, despite losing over 300 councilors, the Lib Dems managed to retain four of the six councils under their control. Nationally coalition with the Conservatives has halved Lib Dem support since the last general election, but in their heartlands, Lib Dem politicians remain popular. The local supporter base of many Lib Dem MPs will help the party retain more Westminster seats at the 2015 general election than national opinion polls suggest.

UKIP’s gains in local and European elections are not a political mega-quake, but nor are they a minor tremor after which politics can return to “business as usual.” Although public anger at austerity and at the financial squeeze on many families played a part in UKIP’s surge, public dissatisfaction with Britain’s mainstream parties extends beyond the country’s economic woes.

Over the past decade, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal have fundamentally undermined public confidence in established parties and politicians.

Waiting for the Farage phenomenon to fizzle out will not be enough to restore public faith in politics.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of political science at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University.

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