As earthquakes go, this one isn’t very high up the Richter scale. But some aspects of the landscape have changed, with consequences for the General Election in May 2015.
The ‘earthquake’ is more of a tremor. Only one-third of the UK electorate participated in this contest. Double that number, and possibly more, will participate next May, and it cannot at this point be assumed that those who didn’t vote in these elections share the same preferences of those who did.
While UKIP topped the European poll with around 27%, their share in the local elections, on the same day, was 17%, a significant drop on its share in local election a year earlier. Voters are showing they can and will discriminate between types of elections. They will again next May.
Britain now has a two-plus-two party system. The Conservatives and Labour remain the contenders for government, as one of them will emerge the largest party at the next general election, with the other, the runner up.
The two contenders for ‘balance of power’ are the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
The parties of ‘discontent’ – not the traditional parties of government – polled 6 million votes in the European elections of 2009. They have done so again in 2014. There is no change in the level of discontent; rather a significant coalescing of that discontent around one major force, UKIP. That makes the discontent more audible, and more compelling.
Britain now has a two-plus-two party system. The Conservatives and Labour remain the contenders for government, as one of them will emerge the largest party at the next general election, with the other, the runner up. The two contenders for ‘balance of power’ are the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
UKIP is now an important presence on the landscape for two reasons: the level of its support and the stickiness of its support. It garnered 2.4m votes in the local elections, and 4m in the European poll. It is the first party to harness ‘protest’ this effectively. In net effect, it has taken its support – certainly in respect of the European poll – from Liberal Democrats and ‘others’ (including the BNP) and then topped it up with previous supporters of the two main parties, and previous non-voters.
Current polling evidence indicates that 40-50% of those voting UKIP at the moment will adhere to the party in May 2015 – a much higher retention rate than previous ‘third party’ movements. If true, then potentially it could retain up to 2m votes in the general election. There have been ‘Europe-centred’ third parties in UK general elections before, such as Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in 1997, which garnered just short of a million votes.
But the 1997 election was a lopsided landslide and Referendum votes barely impacted on the outcome. UKIP’s impact could be different: the election is tight, and UKIP has learned the lesson of targeting into selected key areas.
The UK electorate are expressing frustration and scepticism. The recession has been long, and the recovery is yet to be experienced by the large majority of households. There is a widespread sense that the conventional political system hasn’t delivered. A question on many voters’ minds is ‘how can we get to something better?’.
One way is to go for a different system altogether and look at alternative ways of doing things. There’s a ‘different future’ option – hence the appeal of going for independence in Scotland. There’s a ‘let’s return to things as they used to be’ option – the basis of much of UKIP’s appeal. These are versions of the much-desired ‘change’ that by-passes the traditional parties.
The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all have difficulties latching onto the ‘change’ imperative. For the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it’s hard because they are the government. For Labour, it’s hard because the memories of 2008-10 have not entirely faded.
The narrative of British politics is now shaped by the tussle between the two possible routes to change – by going outside the traditional structures and options, or by finding it within the traditional offerings.
All parties will now engage in positioning designed to latch onto the change imperative.
The Conservative narrative will be that they have begun the change and must be allowed to continue it. They will seek to claw back lost supporters who have gone to UKIP by strengthening their stand on Europe, by adding more weight and content to the list of items to be delivered in a renegotiation. They will hope that the gains made by ‘anti-EU’ parties across Europe will help secure more support for reform from other EU governments.
The Liberal Democrats have no discernible alternative, other than to increase their distancing from the Conservatives. They will stop talking about Europe. And they must urgently weigh the case for remaining in the coalition at all for much longer. Both partners in the coalition may find it politically expedient to part company before the autumn.
Labour will raise the volume on its ‘change’ plans, and spread them out across a wider array of policy areas. It is bound to its stance on an EU referendum as any change there would look like panic, but it will sharpen its message on a reform agenda for the EU. Labour will also develop a more detailed immigration policy, designed to win back lost support to UKIP.
UKIP’s challenge is how to maintain momentum. It has slipped back already in local election share, while gaining in European election share. The impact of the latter will fade through the 11 month run-in to the General Election, as some of its policy clothes are stolen by other parties. As it targets a handful of Parliamentary constituencies, its activity will dwindle in most areas. Its General Election appeal will require a broader suite of policies than Europe and immigration. The simple verities it easily espouses on those will be harder to replicate in areas of the economy, education, health and welfare.
The political ground has reverberated to the impact of many angry and frustrated voters stamping their feet. To respond, the traditional parties now have to alter their language, and develop sharper edges and audible messages tied to clearer policies.
The voters’ message to them all is, “sharpen up your act if you want us to choose a change agent amongst you.”