Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 May 2013
The extraordinary surge in support for UK Independence Party in the local elections has undoubtedly been the big British politics story of the month. UKIP came from (almost) nowhere to take a surprisingly large share of the vote in the shire counties and unitary councils voting this year and increased its number of council seats by 139.
Precisely how big its share was is still unclear. The BBC’s figure for UKIP’s “projected national share” of the vote as 23 per cent is what made the headlines – but that is just a little problematic because it is an estimate of what would have happened across the country in local elections if they had taken place everywhere and if UKIP and the three main parties had been contesting every seat. It could be that the BBC’s psephologists built a very sophisticated model to make their projection, but their assumptions have not been published and nor, so far, have the raw data for votes actually cast. I might be wrong, but my hunch is that they have probably exaggerated the evenness of the distribution of UKIP support across the country: UKIP’s actual seats are concentrated in the east and south-east in run-down coastal towns and in agricultural areas where there are lots of east European vegetable-pickers. We shall see.
Still, UKIP undoubtedly did very well – and that has sent much of the Tory party into a state of panic. Tory MPs could live with the prospect of UKIP getting the most votes in next year’s European elections, but until this month UKIP’s successes in any other elections were minor. It had a tiny number of council seats and, although it had been runner-up in a handful of parliamentary by-elections, in all apart from Eastleigh its second places had been distant. Now the fear has swept the Tories that UKIP will split the right-wing vote in the 2015 general election and let Labour through the middle.
It might happen, it might not: the general election is a long way off. What is important, however, is that the Tories’ fear is affecting their behaviour in the here and now. UKIP does not have coherent policies for government, and Nigel Farage is difficult to take seriously as a national political leader. But on one issue above all UKIP addresses directly the concerns of a large number of working-class and lower-middle-class voters who mainly voted Tory in 2010: immigration. That much was known before the local elections – the anti-immigration measures in last week’s threadbare Queen’s Speech were not dreamed up in desperation over the previous weekend – but the Tories are in shock at having lost so much of the anti-immigrant electorate, and their ugly chauvinist rhetoric is already getting uglier.
The government’s problem here is that, as UKIP never tires of pointing out, there is very little it can do to deter anyone from other European Union countries coming to Britain as long as we remain in the EU, and the government does not want to leave. It is difficult to see how David Cameron can get out of this one. He has already promised as much as he can – a renegotiation and the promise of an “in-out” referendum in the next parliament – that is tolerable to his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but it is not enough for the hardline Tory Eurosceptic right. Cameron now faces trouble on Europe every bit as serious as the endless bickering that undermined John Major during the 1990s.
Labour can enjoy the Tories’ predicament – but only a little. Its local election campaign was well targeted on marginal Westminster seats, but it too took a hit from UKIP, and its overall share of the vote was unimpressive. More important, it is going to be much more difficult than in the 1990s for Labour to exploit a giant bust-up on the right about Europe. Back then, the economy was booming, immigration meant asylum-seekers, and the right’s anti-Europeanism was all about Brussels bureaucracy rather than east Europeans coming over here and taking our houses and jobs. Labour cannot ignore voters’ worries about immigration and Europe, but it needs to be very careful that it is not sucked into an anti-Europe, anti-immigrant bidding war.