Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Local elections are a test of public opinion, with failures of national parties often overriding successes of local components. Rather than speculative opinion polls, turnouts and distribution of actual votes for local councils provides a firm basis to judge the organisation and popular appeal of political parties.
After the supposed dawn of four party politics in local government, the established parties adjust their sails to new electoral winds and uncharted waters. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is having a direct effect on the Conservatives, and an indirect effect on Labour. UKIP won 147 seats in 2013, where 112 were nominally Conservative seats in 2009, with 22 wrested from Liberal Democrats. A solitary Labour councillor was usurped by UKIP: the two-member Ramsgate ward in Kent County Council transmuted from Conservative-Labour to UKIP-UKIP. The party gained seven seats in 2009, defending three successfully, suggesting vulnerability and obliterating their only councillor in Nottinghamshire.
The Official Opposition plummeted 10 percentage points in the national equivalent vote share over the last year, whilst the Conservatives spiral 8 points downwards. Labour advanced relative to their disastrous 2009 election, held in the zenith of the MPs expenses’ scandal and the valley of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s popularity. UKIP are succeeding in capturing seats held by Conservatives, but Labour votes may be transferred to the Eurosceptic party in large numbers. A YouGov-Prospect poll in June 2012 found 41% of Conservatives would consider voting UKIP, along with 20% of Labour intenders and 17% of Liberal Democrats.
The results from Lincolnshire County Council demonstrate an incremental increase in voter turnouts where there are UKIP candidates, providing some evidence to the claim that the party is reinvigorating dormant voters. In the 17 wards where UKIP did not stand, the turnout was 29.0%; 29.3% in 44 wards where the party stood but lost, and 29.7% in the 16 wards with newly-elected UKIP councillors. The visible effect is small.
The new treatment from the Conservatives is vastly different. After a campaign of copious calumniation, including David Cameron calling UKIP full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” in 2006 and government minister Ken Clarke referring to them as “clowns”, the Prime Minister now urges:
It is no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for. Of course, they should be subject and they will be subject to a proper scrutiny of their policies and their plans. But we need to show respect for people who have taken the choice to support this party and we are going to work really hard to win them back.
There are numerous calls for a swift change of direction. David Davis MP, who failed in two leadership runs for the Conservatives, said UKIP’s stances “mimic a simplified 1980s Tory manifesto” of “a Primary Colours Conservative party”. The policy prescription is precise: cut taxes, especially for married couples, and an EU referendum before the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Whether their votes represent an impermanent protest or sustained re-alignment, few policies may quell this ascending party.