UKIP’s rise threatens to spur Eurosceptic tone in British politics
Conservatives suffer badly at the hands of smaller parties, but Labour could also face problems
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage in London yesterday. Mr Farage said the local election results boded well for the Westminster election. Photograph: Olivia Harris/Reuters
Britain’s biggest political parties will have to learn “major lessons” from the local election results, British prime minister David Cameron has said, following dramatic gains for the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which opposes the UK’s membership of the European Union.
“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,” said Mr Cameron, whose party lost nearly 400 seats on councils in England and Wales.
The gains made by Ukip mean that the Conservatives and Labour will now have to adopt increasingly negative tones towards the EU, along with taking a harder line on immigration and on welfare benefits.
Displaying a very different tone towards Ukip, Mr Cameron – who has previously called the party “fruitcakes” and “clowns” – said: “It’s no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for.”
However, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs already unhappy with Mr Cameron have railed that the prime minister’s insulting language – copied by cabinet minister Ken Clarke – was a misjudgment and riled voters already angry with the party.
In a brief message on Twitter, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said: “If nothing else, let us now be polite to Ukip and their supporters.” Meanwhile, Kent MP Douglas Carswell said: “Attacking Ukip as clowns, or sneering because their fiscal plans might not add up, will not do”.
Earlier this week, Mr Cameron gave guarded signals that he might move quickly to pass legislation guaranteeing a referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017, although the Liberal Democrats will oppose any such move.
Ukip’s rise does pose significant issues over the EU for Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, since he has so far refused to match Mr Cameron’s offer to voters of a referendum – although some of his own ranks believe that he should.
Although the Liberal Democrats lost nearly 130 seats, the junior coalition party received some good news in that the surge in Ukip’s vote meant that dozens of its councillors held on because Ukip ate into the Conservatives’ traditional support.
Equally, the Liberal Democrats appears to have won 30 per cent of the votes in areas where it has MPs, compared with 27 per cent for the Conservatives, 17 per cent for Ukip and 15 per cent for Labour, according to uncontested figures from the party last night.
Research carried out by YouGo v for the Times of London showed the Conservatives lost six times more voters to Ukip than Labour did, while the Liberal Democrats lost twice the numbers that Labour did.
Conservative education secretary Michael Gove said people supported Ukip because they were suffering economically and were fed up with politicians. “There is a sense sometimes of exasperation with the political classes. We do sometimes seem, the three of us, the pasteurised cheese on the cheeseboard and then Ukip is the rich, ripe, stinky alternative and people think: ‘Don’t mind having a slice of that,’” said Mr Gove.
The issue now is how much of Thursday’s vote was a protest display, or whether it marks a fundamental reorganisation of the British political landscape, with the Conservatives being sent into exile because the right-of-centre vote splits.
Four years ago, Ukip won 15 per cent of the vote in rural English shires in the local elections of that year, but that support was reduced sharply to just 5 per cent in the general election a year ago when voters were faced with deciding who they wanted to be their MP.
However, Labour has grounds for worry too, since it did not make the gains it needs to win back seats in key areas that were key to Tony Blair’s success in the 1990s. Labour did win the South Shields byelection caused by David Miliband’s departure, although with a reduced majority because of a surge in support for Ukip in a region where it has never had a foothold.