Sunday, 5 May 2013

More questions than answers...........

To many Thursday's County Council election results were a 'game changer,' as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), seemed to come from virtually nowhere to win 147 councillors a gain of 136 on the same elections in 2009.

These gains were mainly at the expense of the Conservatives who were down 335 seats, although they remain the largest party in County Councils by some margin, having more than twice as many as the Labour Party.

These elections featured another poor performance by the Liberal Democrats, who lost around a quarter of their councillors. The Conservatives also lost about 25%, but they started from a much higher base, and so were always likely to suffer considerable losses.

The coalition partners then for the first time since forming the government in 2010 both suffered substantial losses, but is this just mid-term blues, or a taste of things to come?

Perhaps if the Labour Party had many more gains we could have read more into the results, but despite a gaining a very good 291 councillors, all that has happened is that Labour are back to where they were in 2009.

There were typical to and fros on Friday as both Conservative and Labour spokespeople each claimed the other had done terribly, trading figures back and forth, and really just generating more heat than light.

As a Labour Party supporter, I was pleased with the results on Thursday, especially as we made gains in areas where the party of often has difficulty making headway, such as the Sussex coastal area, the midlands and the west country. In the long run this may turn out to be more significant than whether or not Labour performed as well as they should have.

However, the real story of the 2013 County Council elections was the performance of UKIP, and whether  it heralds a sea-change in British politics (or perhaps more accurately English as UKIP's presence elsewhere is muted), or a protest vote against all the main parties, with whom the public have become increasingly disillusioned.

But UKIP have a number of problems to overcome before they could be said to have made a real impact on the political scene. True they have had candidates elected to the European Parliament for some time, but have never made much progress, until now, on the domestic scene, and still have got nowhere near having an MP elected.

In 2009's elections for the European Parliament, UKIP came second in the national vote, and many pundits are expecting that next year, they could well come out on top. But, until they have an MP elected under the UKIP banner, being taken seriously will be a problem for them.

There have been many rumours over the last year or so that a number of Conservative MP's might defect to UKIP, the principle issue being David Cameron's unwillingness to call a referendum on membership of the European Union. For Mr Cameron this is a delicate issue, as he too has problems with the EU, how it is administered and how much it costs. However, he is in the end, as is the Chancellor George Osborne, in favour of continued membership provided he can get the concessions he wants. Unfortunately for him, a substantial proportion of his own membership in including those MP's, want out altogether.

But, although a defection would cause the Prime Minister some embarrassment, losing a minor backbencher or two isn't an issue, until UKIP start to get members of Parliament elected under its own banner, advocating a UKIP manifesto.

On the face of it UKIP do present the greatest threat to the Conservative Party, but they can also affect the other main parties. Although Labour did not actually lose any councillors to UKIP on Thursday, inevitably some Labour supporters, for a number of reasons chose to vote for them, and almost certainly it cost Labour wins.

The UKIP performance also, probably, skews the performance of the Conservative party, as it is its supporters who switched here in the main, and without UKIP, the Tories losses would have been many fewer.

I think it would be dangerous to write off the UKIP performance as a mere protest vote, because politics has changed substantially over the last few years. The expenses scandal and the financial crisis has lowered people's opinion of politicians more than ever, and it's hard for leaders to make an impact. trust has gone, and UKIP leader's, Nigel Farage, bluff, bloke down the pub strategy is currently paying dividends.

As the elections drew closer, UKIP's candidates came under greater scrutiny, although not yet their policies, and demonstrated that they too have been caught out by their success, and have yet to put in place a proper candidate programme. Although as the other parties will vouch, that is no guarantee that the odd embarrassment won't slip through.

The General Election is two years away, and a lot will happen between now and then which could have a significant impact. The performance of the economy will be key, and the answers that each of the parties comes up with to deal with those issues.

Will the coalition hold together as they increasingly diverge in their approach? Will the Labour Party be able to come up with policies and rhetoric that enables the public to trust them again? Will the Conservative reaction to the UKIP threat be to lurch to the right, to allay that? Will the Liberal Democrats look to position themselves where they can benefit whichever of Conservative or Labour is the biggest party in 2015? Will UKIP make the breakthrough into Parliament they desire, and need, and become a new force in politics?

There is one other issue that may yet have an effect, and that's the referendum on Scottish independence due in 2014, only eight months before the General Election. A yes vote would create problems, as independence itself would not become a fact until around March 2016.

Would Scotland still send MP's to the House, only to have them leave once independence became a fact? If they did, and there were enough Labour MP's (Conservatives currently being weaker in Scotland than elsewhere in Great Britain) to either make them the biggest party, or even give them a big majority?

Alternatively, the Conservatives could move from being the biggest party to becoming a majority one, having once again been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Would they dump their junior partners, and form a new government on their own?

Anyway, having strayed off the point a bit here, what does the County Council elections of 2013 tell us about the British political scene?

Not much in the end, the main parties both did pretty much as expected, UKIP did better than expected, but now they have entered the mainstream they will come under greater scrutiny. But with two years to go until a General Election, and European Elections and a Scottish independence referendum in between, there are a lot more questions than answers at the moment, so making predictions is a fool's game.

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