For a moment on Wednesday afternoon shortly after Prime Minister’s Question Time, the EU referendum campaign took a bizarre twist when Nigel Farage tweeted “Once again David Cameron makes a powerful argument to vote to Remain”.
Farage quickly deleted his mistake, but UKIP’s leader will hope his other remarks on Wednesday weren’t lost as a consequence of his issues with predictive text on social media.
Earlier that day Farage appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme, briefly shifting his focus away from the EU referendum towards the local elections next week. Farage predicted that UKIP is poised to make a “significant breakthrough” in elections in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The approach and choice of words by Farage was interesting, claiming he was the “only party leader who has got a chance of winning seats in all four of them”. Farage’s attempt at portraying UKIP as a major political party, rather than a single issue movement, is understandable. It’s easy to forget last year at the General Election UKIP won nearly 4 million votes with 13% of the vote.
But what can UKIP hope for next week? To answer that it is worth considering UKIP’s performance back in the corresponding elections in 2012. At the time, 2012 was a record year for UKIP in local elections, securing around 13% of the vote. However, the party struggled to turn this into an impressive number of seats.
UKIP’s performance also party led to increased worries on the Conservative benches about the threat posed by UKIP. UKIP gained momentum in local elections over the next two years, in 2013 and 2014, where it secured 22% and 17% of the vote respectively.
If UKIP can sustain this sort of performance, next week could see Farage’s prediction come true. The party is also expected to be fielding roughly double the number of candidates it had back in 2012.
An impressive set of results would be a welcome distraction for Farage, who in recent months has had to deal with media stories about the internal workings of UKIP. With a new wave of UKIP councillors behind him, Farage would feel emboldened to begin pushing through reforms to the party he has called for, such as moving to an online polling model for candidate selection, similar to the Five Star movement in Italy.
The local elections are also taking place against the backdrop of the EU referendum. Farage may point to UKIP’s wide ranging manifesto, but voters traditionally use local elections to send the Government of the day a message.
At the moment, Labour hardly look in any shape to take advantage of the Government’s woes, such as the junior doctor’s strike. UKIP will also be hoping to pick up support from traditional Labour voters, especially across the North, who don’t feel much affinity with the EU.
Labour MP Frank Field, who is supporting the Leave campaign, also warned this week that Labour risks losing a “swathe” of voters to UKIP by supporting continued EU membership. Field’s assessment of how many voters Labour will lose to UKIP on the basis of its position on EU membership is secondary to the point that Labour is suffering an identity crisis with elements of its core support. The party’s brand is still tainted as a result of its record on immigration while in Government, along with its perceived failure to manage the economy.
Four years ago UKIP’s performance at the local elections was seen as a potential boost for Labour. For the Conservative Party the question was how to repel a threat from the right without reverting to its image of the ‘nasty party’.
In 2016, UKIP is no longer just a Conservative Party problem. Jeremy Corbyn already has a long list of problems to deal with as Labour leader. He may wake up the day after the local elections with another: how to solve Labour’s UKIP problem.