What does winning mean? ‘Winning’ means securing a larger share of the vote than any other party in the contest. The number of MEPs won will secure less attention. Current polling (early April) shows UKIP, Labour and Conservative all bunched closely together.
Currently, when the polling companies ask about propensity to vote on May 22, UKIP ‘wins’, with Labour second and the Conservatives third. The evidence suggests that UKIP voters are strongly motivated to turn out to vote in a European election; it is a ‘free hit’ at Europe, without any direct ramifications for domestic government.
The town hall mix
If it were a stand-alone vote for MEPs, UKIP’s prospects wold be enhanced even further; supporters of other parties would have little motivation to turn out for the election. Voters with little or no interest in the European issue would stay at home.
This time – in a bid to derail UKIP’s prospects – the government has moved local elections back, to take place on the same day as the European poll. This time, local elections will be held in all 32 London boroughs, in 36 metropolitan boroughs, 20 unitary authorities and 74 districts, on the same day. This should raise overall turnout, and bring more non-UKIP voters to the polls. But given where the contests are being held, additional participation is likely to marginally help Labour rather than the Conservatives.
Because of the dual election, the challenge for UKIP is much bigger than had this remained a stand-alone contest. The risk for the main parties is, should UKIP still ‘win’ on the day, the impact will be even larger.
The Conservative reaction.
Tory MPs in marginal seats will be very jumpy. A jubilant UKIP will raise the prospect of their vote being substantial enough in the general election to drain support away from the party. Parliamentary and local government by-election results show that UKIP’s presence in a contest marginally draws away more Conservative support than that for any other party.
Tory MPs in marginal seats will strengthen their position on Europe and immigration. Pressure will mount on Cameron to spell out his intentions on renegotiation and repatriation of powers from EU institutions. Policy initiatives on Europe and immigration in particular will be set out at the autumn conference and will be more to the right than would otherwise have been the case.
Many Tory MPs will urge use of the argument that ‘voting UKIP will let Labour in.’ The leadership may be equivocal about this, not welcoming the implication that the Tories could lose.
The Labour reaction.
Labour MP’s nervousness over Miliband’s gamble on the party’s EU in-out referendum stance will increase. Even though Labour is likely to gain MEPs in the contest – after its dismal performance in 2009 – high UKIP vote shares in the party’s urban constituencies – and a possible new intake of UKIP councillors – will cause considerable nervousness. The most likely outcome will be Labour announcing a carefully balanced immigration policy, aimed at reassuring its white working-class supporters.
The Liberal Democrat reaction.
Clegg’s decision to try to draw out Farage in televised head to head contests, in the run up to the vote, will be widely seen inside the party as a misjudgement. Rumblings about his leadership are unlikely to amount to much, so close to the general election. But the reckoning would come after next May, especially if the party is not taking any part in government.
The UKIP reaction.
Initially euphoria. It would be the first time UKIP has ‘won’ a national vote. However, the ‘bounce’ in general election voting intentions could be small. UKIP will need to move the debate away from Europe (which ranks as a very low issue in general elections) and back onto other policy areas, such as immigration, where it believes it has some traction. If UKIP allows a victory in a European election to be the trigger for a long, noisy campaign about quitting the EU, May 2014 could turn into defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
The uncertain prospects for the election outcome in May 2015 will become even more uncertain. UKIP will, for a while, have the opportunity to set the agenda. But as the issues steadily revert to those that hold sway in a general election – the economy, living standards, public services and welfare – the going for UKIP will get tougher. Even so, the unease in both the Conservative and Labour camps, over the loyalties of their ‘core vote’ will be palpable, right through to the general election.
Written by James Plaskitt, former Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington.