With only the European vote to turn out for, Scotland will have recorded one of its lowest voter turnouts on Thursday May 22nd—probably somewhere in the high 30’s percent. The turnout in England was hardly much better but they did have roughly 1/3rd of council seats up for election. And, though those English local results may seem irrelevant to most Scots, they should be considered highly relevant as a factor in anyone’s choice between Yes and No in September.
Other than to party apparatchiks and the candidates involved, local elections anywhere rarely stir the blood or set anyone’s heather alight. In England, over the last 14 years the Tories have drifted down from 38% to 29% in share of local vote while Labour has barely moved from 29% to 31% (despite a bad dip to 20% under Irn Broon in 2009). But dig deeper and over the same time, Labour has slipped from 10,608 councillors to 7,109 while Tories have almost doubled from 4,449 to 8,400, despite losing vote share.
All this augers ill for Labour hopes of attaining UK power in 2015. But what augers worse is the Lib-Dem tale of vertiginous cratering, moving from a 28% share and 4,754 seats to just 2,318 seats from a 13% vote share. This can’t be just the unpopularity of being in government or the Tories would be hit just as hard. What’s going on? Well, it seems that the voting public, ever more cynical towards those who rule, has seized an even more radical stick with which to beat incumbents as a protest vote: UKIP.
Just as the Lib-Dems once filled the vacuum in Northern England cities by taking up the opposition cudgels that decimated Tories dropped from Accrington to York, so this election saw a phenomenon new to English politics but now familiar to Scots—a complex pattern of confusion and No-Overall-Control spawned by four-party politics. Where once basic city = red/country = blue assumptions would apply to 90% of results, the council map of England is now much more of a dull desert of grey.
For UKIP has arrived—157 seats at the last count and, while there are no councils in their control, several clear patterns emerge from their location, all of which pose dangers to the three UK parties and none of which seem to be taken seriously by any of their commentators on the aftermath. While Farage was chuckling into his pint in an Essex pub, a succession of party talking heads on BBC2’s election coverage spouted a predictable mélange of minder-dictated messages that added little to the sum of political knowledge:
- “Labour has made significant gains with 290 more councillors and seizing key councils in London such as Croydon, Haringey and David Cameron’s favourite Hammersmith & Fulham” (Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Transport Minister)
- “While I’m sorry to lose hard-working Conservative councillors, we have been able to win the first new council in London since 1982—Kingston-on-Thames.” (Boris Johnson, Mayor of London)
- “Yes we have had losses. But where Lib-Dems are strong, holding parliamentary seats and councils, we are more resilient because of the ground work we do.” (Malcolm Bruce MP, Deputy L-Dem Leader)
It may be unfair to pick on them but they are representative. Since great affairs of state were not drivers in these elections, the banality of policy content highlighted the sheer gallus nature of what every guest on the programme said. Despite the fact that 155 new UKIP councillors had been elected in the teeth of established heartlands of all three parties, they were dismissed as protest only, just assorted flashes in the pan. This was not only naive but underscores what the average voter detests about politicians: their apparent inability to give a straight answer or (often) even to address the question.
The sudden, often unexpected appearance of UKIP council groups inflicted pain across the political spectrum that does not necessarily bode well even for those who seem to have benefited. In the Labour target of Portsmouth, the Lib-Dems lost control by losing five of their seats—but to UKIP who took a sixth off Labour who thereby went backwards. In wall-to-wall Labour homeland, UKIP wooed what Rotherham Labour MP John Healy called the “disillusioned former Labour working-class vote” and won 10 seats in his Rotherham back yard, making inroads as far apart as Hull, Sunderland and Birmingham. Though Labour gained in total seats, it was nothing like what they hoped for.
And while Tories did lose seats to Labour, the bulk of UKIP’s 155 additions were at their expense and their diversion of core Tory support cost many others. But in Essex, home to ‘Basildon Man’, those aspirational working class voters who flocked to support Thatcher and found a home with Blair’s New Labour, seem to have been especially impressed by UKIP. Several former Tory councils went to NOC as almost half of the UKIP seats were won across East Anglia. From Castle Point to Great Yarmouth there are now new UKIP groups of 5 – 10 on local councils.
In Basildon itself, UKIP are suddenly the main opposition, having taken seven seats from the Tories, three from Labour and one from the Lib-Dems, almost as if to show their even-handed lethality to established parties. This seems much more than symbolic or coincidental. With the advent of on-message elected members, SPADs, expenses scandals and relentless media, the entire body politic in the UK has become the focus for people’s growing, if unrealistic, expectations.
Politicians, who increasingly inhabit a world with little external experience and who have adopted much of the career-building techniques that business developed in the 1980s, may have moved beyond mullet hairstyles and power shoulder pads. But slick media handling by groomed ‘safe pairs of hands’ has jaundiced our view of such spokespeople—and by extension parties. High profile characters who still evade party whips’ best efforts—Dennis “Beast of Bolsover” Skinner or Boris “Bendy-Bus” Johnson—are exceptions, evincing an affection but that does not extend to their parties. ‘Old school’ parliamentary elders like Austin Mitchell come across as anachronisms: when told UKIP had the biggest vote in Grimsby, had taken seats off everyone and could take his seat next year, he dismissed that tetchily—as only an 80-year-old no longer moving with the times can.
There have been times in the past when Social Democrats or Greens were seen as the coming wave of politics and thereby made themselves into conduits of protest. But the dissatisfaction with ‘business-as-usual’ politics back then never reached levels it has attained now. Watching a day of David Dimbleby quizzing a series of MPs spinning their respective UK parties, they were relentless in agreeing UKIP’s surge was powered by a need for change in the present system and yet loyally spouting their party mantra variants.
Was there no exception? Well, yes: a brief interview with Nigel Farage outside an Essex pub showed him to be astute in articulating UKIP achievements as if they were victories when, in fact, not one council came under their control. But, more importantly, he was disarmingly normal: hesitating before answering, as if thinking about it; accepting that London results were disappointing; giving an object lesson how to be the kind of bloke that Basildon Man might not just vote for but like and trust.
Whether that image was genuine or generated almost doesn’t matter. It signals that the English middle has found the kind of person whose politics makes sense to them again. The ‘main’ UK parties must soon learn that lesson or suffer rigor mortis from their own over-managed anal retention and cringeworthy adherence to a political system nobody in the real world admires. Because Basildon Man, having lost and found first Thatcherism and then Blairism, has found a new credo, one that makes equivalent sense to him.
But, while he relishes those new politics of England, the UKIP philosophy of mistrust of those across the channel and defence of all things English makes less sense to the other countries of the British Isles; UKIP is effectively EIP—the English Independence Party. As such, they will reap MEPs on Sunday, yet elect none in Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Equally, they will do well in next year’s UK election—but again just in England. If we Scots have any sense, we will sidestep all this by serving notice in September that we prefer active participation in the world and deprecate England’s increasing isolation and the small-minded UKIP politics now driving it.