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.
And this brings me to the position of the Tories. If their poor results in London were simply the latest example of the swings and roundabouts of electoral politics, they could shrug their shoulders and press on. That in fact is what they are doing: David Cameron’s spin-meisters are letting it be known that those voters who have defected to UKIP will return by the next election in London and elsewhere. Nothing to fret about. Steady as she goes. But these results are merely the latest evolution of a very ominous long-term trend for the Tories. As Anthony Scholefield and Gerald Frost pointed out in their 2011 study Too Nice to Be Tories, the Conservative Party has been steadily losing one region of the United Kingdom after another in the last 40 years. It used to be able to depend on nine to twelve Unionist votes from Northern Ireland for its parliamentary majority; it gets none now. It won half the Scottish seats in 1955; the last three general elections each returned one Scottish Tory to Parliament. It wins eight seats out of 40 in Wales. And from the 158 MPs elected from the North of England, the Tories got 53.
This is a dreadful record, but it could get worse. UKIP is now starting to replace the Tories as the main challenger to Labour in northern working-class constituencies. The new party takes votes in particular from culturally conservative and patriotic working-class men whom both major parties have abandoned in their pursuit of urban middle-class progressives. UKIP may therefore be a threat to both parties, but the local elections suggest that it is a bigger threat to the Conservative party. Its advance is real enough, but in most northern constituencies its success so far consists of coming in second to Labour and of pushing the Tories down into their southern redoubt. But if London is going Labour — and the swing gave Labour control of once true-blue Redbridge, which is halfway to Brighton — then the South of England is a much smaller Tory redoubt than it used to be.
Some of these past trends explain why Tory leader David Cameron cultivated his relationship with the Liberals. He calculated that the Tories would find it hard to win power on their own, and by cultivating a more progressive image, he thought to make himself a more acceptable coalition partner for the Lib-Dems. Unless things change, however, there will be too few Lib-Dems in the House of Commons to provide either Cameron or Miliband with an effective coalition partner. So Cameron has to win more votes and parliamentary seats on his own next year.
Can he do so? One cannot rule it out entirely. Short-term factors sometimes overwhelm long-term trends. An economic recovery that has not (yet) overheated and gone bust. The “Miliband feel-bad factor,” rising house prices leading to a massive “feel-good factor”: These and other unforeseeable events might carry Cameron home to Number Ten. But it is very unlikely. In 2010, UKIP won 3 percent of the vote; it is currently pulling in between 17 and 29 percent (depending on the region and on the election.) It is difficult to see UKIP’s falling to below the 6–7 percent total that would ensure Cameron’s defeat. At the same time, because it lacks even a single seat today, UKIP is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats even if it scores double the vote of the Lib-Dems. So a minority Tory government could not rely on UKIP for either a formal coalition or informal parliamentary support.
That leaves Cameron with a difficult choice.
Either he does the electoral deal with UKIP that he now says he won’t do, in which the Tories agree to support UKIP candidates in a given number of seats in return for UKIP’s not fielding candidates elsewhere. In London, for instance, that would give UKIP an electoral base of something just above 40 percent — in Britain as a whole an even larger one.
Or he contrives to lose the Scottish referendum on independence, which would remove only one Tory from the House of Commons but 41 Labourites and 11 Lib-Dems.
My guess is that he’ll wait to see how the second option pans out before deciding on the first.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.