Saturday 4 May 2013

No one ‘won’ the local elections

I spent yesterday doing journalistic coverage of the county council election results and it was hard to say that anyone ‘won’.

It is true that UKIP got its surge to about 25% of the vote, but for any liberal to think this must herald some long-term change in politics may be premature. We’ve all seen ‘liberal revivals’ as protests at someone else’s mid-term that hauled in many more seats than UKIP now has, and which duly vanished a few years later.

In terms of local council seats, UKIP is now more or less level-pegging with the Green Party, but its gains are very patchy. The novelty is that UKIP’s surge has come in one go.

Since UKIP has a policy of ‘no whipping’ in its own council groups, it is hard to see how anyone will be able to do a deal with it on a hung council, with the result that there will probably be a lot of minority Tory administrations when the dust settles.

And since UKIP has suddenly elected all manner of odd people who never expected to win (not a situation exactly unknown to Liberal Democrats), it seems reasonable to expect plenty of splits and defections, especially from a party whose two main policy areas – Europe and immigration – are not under the influence of county councils.

Labour should have done much better. It was remarkable enough that it lost Lancashire and Staffordshire in 2009 – even more so that it failed to win back either this time and only scraped home against the eccentric incumbent in the mayoral election in Doncaster. Labour can enjoy its gains but surely a party expecting to win a general election should be doing better?

As for the Liberal Democrats, it was another bad set of elections, though not a massacre. A trend is now becoming clear that the party – shorn of its old protest vote – is falling back on its core vote. And since it has persistently failed to cultivate a national core vote, this turns out to be found only in the parliamentary seats it holds or recently held, or those it might plausibly win. The party might fare a lot better in terms of seats in 2015 than some expect, but it is on its way to ceasing to be a national party.

The Tories also had a bad night without being massacred, but for them it is hard to see a way ahead – trim to the right to win back UKIP voters and lose others from the centre; or continue, at least in their own terms, to ‘modernise’ and gamble that centrists will stay while UKIP voters will come back when forced to choose a government. The Tory right will probably force the former course on their party, with the result that it suddenly looks more vulnerable and its leaders may regret their opposition to AV.

And finally, let’s hear it for the country’s most curiously-named party. Sadly, the Idle Toad Party is no more, banished from Lancashire County Council by a Tory.

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