Thursday’s local elections were hailed as heralding a new four-party electoral system in Britain. This verdict was put beyond question last night when UKIP — the United Kingdom Independence Party — emerged in the European elections as the largest single party in terms of the popular vote. It is no small earthquake when a small insurgent party with not a single Westminster member of Parliament wins more votes nationwide — across all three nations in Great Britain and all the regions of England — than the established behemoths of Labour and the Tories. This almost unprecedented success (the last time that a party other than Labour or the Tories came top in a national election was 1910!) might just shatter all conventional notions of the politically possible and lift UKIP to the point where it wins seats as well as votes in next May’s UK general election. For the moment, however, caution suggests that Thursday’s local elections — also a strong UKIP performance but short of an earthquake — are probably more reliable indicators to next May.
So it is curious that almost all the commentaries underplay or even miss the big story: This is the threat, long- and short-term, that UKIP poses for the Tories.
To judge from the headlines, the big losers in these elections are Labour and the Liberal Democrats and in particular their respective leaders, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Both men are being blamed for the poor performance of their parties, and there is much speculation that they will face leadership challenges.
In Clegg’s case, this criticism is amply justified. Support for his party is now hovering around 10 percent both in opinion polls and in two sophisticated calculations of what the local-election results would mean for a general election. That’s less than half the Liberal Democrat national total in the 2010 election. And not only did Clegg decide that the Lib-Dems would fight as unabashed devotees of the European Union, but he debated the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, in two televised debates, and Farage soundly beat him on both occasions. Clegg wagged his face in Farage’s fist and got a bloody nose. He will probably survive, though, because his removal might bring down the Tory–Lib-Dem coalition at a moment when the Lib-Dems would be slaughtered at the polls. Even so, the Lib-Dem future looks bleak. If the current economic recovery continues, Clegg and his party are apt to derive much less benefit from it than are the Tories, who are seen as the senior partner in the coalition. So they will lose the “compassionate” votes to Labour on their left while also losing the “efficient” votes to the Tories on their right.
The obloquy directed toward Miliband needs a little more explaining. It really arises because the government and the Blairite Labour Right both have an interest in painting the Labour leader as a weird alien super-geek who cannot possibly be prime minister. Tories make this argument for the straightforward partisan reason that they think it is a plausible way to win an election. Blairites make this case because they want to displace Miliband before the election, some because he might lose it, others because he might win it and take Britain and their party too far to the left. So there is a coalition of odd bedfellows who agree that Miliband will make a hash of everything. Unfortunately for this argument, Labour won more votes than any other party in the local elections. So the message has had to be massaged to the effect that Miliband won an average of only 31 percent of the national vote when he needed something like 35 percent to be on course for a victory in 2015. Opinion polls seem to confirm these figures, showing Labour one or two percentage points ahead of the Tories nationally.
But this argument has two flaws. First, it is rooted in the past of a two-and-a-half-party system, when any opposition needed a strong lead in midterm opinion polls in order to survive a likely government recovery. That happened time and again from about 1955 to 1997. But a four-party system is much less predictable: For instance, as we saw above, a government recovery might drive Labour voters to the Tories while diverting Lib-Dem votes to Labour. Besides, in such a system, a party can win power with a far smaller percentage of the vote than was needed throughout the 20th century. Second, the anti-Miliband analysis glosses over Labour’s advance in London. With 38 percent of the London vote, Labour won a slew of Tory councils. The Tories were five points behind Labour in the capital, and their sole gain was Kingston-upon-Thames, which, significantly, had previously been held by the Lib-Dems. Commentary on the London results has focused on the fact that UKIP did badly here — 10 percent overall — but the Tories fell sharply, too. London is now voting very differently from the rest of Britain because it is culturally very different as a result of mass immigration in recent years. And Labour is the clear beneficiary.