The results are now in for the local elections and South Shields by-election, as well as mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside.1 At first glance, UKIP appear to have risen from nowhere (in local election terms) to become a serious party, securing an average of 23% of the votes where they have put forward a candidate2 and making a net gain of 139 councillors. Arguably their effect has been deeper than just the number of seats won, as they may well have unseated Conservatives by splitting the vote – although this effect is difficult to measure.
On the other hand, UKIP failed to secure control of any individual councils, and still have fewer councillors than the independents who stood without party resources to back them up. Nigel Farage can certainly boast of success in the local elections, but it would be unwise to suggest that his party has changed the face of local politics based on one set of results which does not include Scotland, Wales3 and large chunks of England. Whether UKIP can hold on to these gains and build upon them is also in doubt – and history does not point in their favour. The Green Party reached its high point in the 1989 European elections,4 winning 15% of the vote – though the First Past the Post system in place prevented them from getting any seats.5 Since then, they have bobbed along near the bottom of the polls, occasionally surging forward but only in small areas such as Brighton, and never with any realistic chance of gaining sufficient widespread support to become a serious political force. The British National Party had a similar success in 2009, using fears about immigration and disgust at the MPs’ expenses scandal to secure two MEPs and three councillors. However, those results have since been almost completely reversed, with one MEP resigning the whip, and most of their councillors losing their seats in the 2010, 2011 and 2013 local elections.
The South Shields by-election ended up as a three party race, but this time UKIP completely displaced the Liberal Democrats and pushed the Conservatives into third place at the same time. Labour just held on to an overall majority of the vote share, slightly down on the general election result but still a safe seat.6 The results were nothing short of a disaster for the Liberal Democrats: vote share down 12 percentage points, only 352 votes and seventh place between the BNP and the Monster Raving Loony Party. This is even more disappointing given that the Lib Dems are usually good at fighting by-elections, where they can mobilise local activists to pound the streets, canvassing and delivering leaflets.7
Cameron can probably brush off the net loss of 335 councillors as mid-term blues, although a few individual results – such as losing Oxfordshire council to No Overall Control8 – are embarrassing. The rise of UKIP has panicked some Conservatives, with members of the No Turning Back group9 calling for a two-stage referendum package on EU membership.10 Personally, I think Cameron should stand firm and keep to his existing plan – which is bad enough as it is – otherwise he runs the risk of being held hostage by UKIP and the extreme Eurosceptics on his own backbenches.
Nick Clegg fell back to reminding people of the party’s victory in Eastleigh as proof that the party is still a relevant force in UK politics.11 However, that was a case of hanging on to what should have been a reasonably safe Lib Dem seat – previously occupied by a high profile MP – with a substantially reduced majority and collapsing share of the vote. As I have pointed out before,12 this is more a case of hanging on for dear life rather than a ‘spectacular victory’. For the moment, Lib Dem MPs seem more content with Clegg’s leadership than Conservative MPs are with Cameron’s, and Clegg has fewer credible challengers for the leadership, but that could change if things do not pick up soon. Having said that, if Clegg can make it through the elections to the European Parliament next year without too many losses – some of which he can blame on rising Euroscepticism and UKIP – he is probably safe until the next general election.
Ed Milliband is no doubt relieved that Labour held on convincingly to South Shields, as a poor result in his brother’s ex-constituency would have been a major media embarrassment. Labour also managed to pick up 291 councillors and, more importantly perhaps, control of two councils.13 The gains were not spectacular though – many Conservative and Lib Dem losses went to UKIP, the Green Party and independents – and Labour still has some way to go in convincing the electorate that it is a credible alternative.
Overall, these elections were a success for UKIP, though not to the extent suggested by the mainstream media, and the long-term success of the party is not guaranteed. Looked at across the board, the three main parties did as well or badly as could be expected and, with the exception of a few minor local embarrassments and a Lib Dem by-election disaster, there is little for their leaders to worry about in the short term.