Friday, 3 May 2013

Local Elections 2013

The Tories are dead, long live the Tories

Last night I made a prediction as to where today would go, I feel I would have said the same a week or even a month ago. With these council elections taking place almost exclusively in Conservative council areas (mostly rural), in councils that they won in the lead up to the 2010 election when disenfranchisement with Labour was at a recent high, this set of elections was always going to be the tale of how the Tories have lost their way.

The plot of that tale though, was always going to be the more interesting thing; with the rise of the "evil" UKIP, and no clear "hero" of the story, against a backdrop of a looming darkness yet to would the story be told? My view was that UKIP would do well, but that this wouldn't be a reflection on UKIP as much as it is on Labour and the Tories (and Lib Dems to a degree, but for different reasons).

My prediction in full was that the Lib Dems would break about even, the geography and who they were fighting would mean they'd just about hold up their vote. If this was a retread of those Labour council areas that were balancing for Lib Dem, then they'd be hit much harder. UKIP will rise and rise, this shouldn't be a surprise given the polling, and the Tories will lose a whole load of councillors...I reckoned about 8 councils would fall from their control. I also said that Labour wins would be moderate. I expected that the arguments would today be about who the UKIP surge reflects on most.

When a UKIP victory...isn't?

Voters who genuinely voted for UKIP won't like it when I say this, but the UKIP "victory" isn't so much a victory for them as it is a loss for the main three parties. In 2009, when the Tories won these seats being contested, they were riding high in the polls. At a 45% vote share they were 19% ahead of a Labour party that was haemorrhaging voters at ever turn. Labour were in the mid 20%'s while Lib Dems were stuck around the 20% mark.

The effect of this was to see the Tories gain 244 councillors while Labour lost 291. The difference, despite a general upswing of Lib Dem votes, largely went to independents and other parties...this is the way of local elections after all, the 'safest' way to put in your protest.

Fast forward to today, 4 years later, and while Labour haven't got it quite so good, they are now the ones in the lead, around 8-9% over the Tories that are balancing on the 30% mark. In theory, if Labour were on the up and up then we should see some significant swapping between the Tories and Labour. It is far too crude to say, but knowing that UKIP and Lib Dems are there to largely split the Tory vote, Labour should surely be walking away with around 150 extra councillors today?

That they haven't is a sign that they are not back in control of the narrative of this country. UKIP victors? Sure, in a sense. At the expense of Tories? a sense. But really it is Labour who need to look at themselves hard here. The reality is that the vote remained with the right of the political spectrum. With cuts, austerity, and very real poverty on the rise in this country people still didn't turn up to support Labour. That is the real story of these elections.

UKIP go strong

So, it turned out a little differently than I expected...Labour have performed looks like they might hit 200 councillors which was their target. That target also out performs their national vote share which is extremely important for 2015 given the location of many of these local elections.

The vote shares are such that UKIP hasn't just taken votes from the Tories, they've also taken them from other "protest" votes and from the Lib Dems. In modern times the "right wing" vote hasn't been so high, which is disconcerting at first glance. Of course the reality is that the media has been stoking the fire of UKIP and with it the spectre of "immigration" as the biggest problem in the world. I feel strongly that if the immigration "problem" is solved, one way or another, the amount of right wing support will drop off completely.

This is probably why UKIP do so little with the little power they have, as actually doing what they claim they want would leave them with nothing to fight against...and those involved in UKIP are in the job for the same reason as most, money and power. You don't slay the only cow in the field.

Lib Dems: Protest Party

There will naturally be those that say that this means that UKIP is now the party of protest, rather than the Lib Dems. I'd agree. This is not a slight on the Lib Dems of course, they will no doubt be proud that their vote has generally held up, largely against the Tories (which is significant for 2015) while also being subjected to vitriol from those parts of the political spectrum that may well not like the landscape that they see in two years time.

What this means is that the Lib Dems will probably be the biggest winners out of the night of the three main parties. With Labour stalling at the start line, and the Tories unable to keep voters Loyal, the Lib Dems will have to look at the surge of UKIP...and the loss of the "protest party" mantle that goes with it...and see themselves as doing about as well as they did in their core constituency areas in the lead up to the last election.

I'm currently critical of the Lib Dems, I won't be voting for them in 2015. But the reality is that they have steadied their ship in a way that neither the Tories or Labour have managed.

There is one thing for sure, and that is the Lib Dems are no longer a protest party. All the signs point to them strengthening their base in strong constituencies but losing awfully in more fluid ones. Their vote share has dropped worse than other parties and the seat losses are more than I expected given that they were fighting mostly Tories, and the Tory share was going to drop hard too in the fight with UKIP.

The Lib Dems have been hit hard by their time in coalition, if their message was getting across to the electorate then they would be stabilising now, yet their still in free fall. The only option going forward is to secure their base, hope for continued power into the next government, and see if they can rebuild trust. The claims by others of Lib Dems returning to the wilderness are seemingly more real than ever.

The wider implications

Turnout in 2009 averaged around 40%, with local elections always polling a little lower than the national ones. The fact that the turnout was lower this time around probably contributed somewhat to the surge that we can see from UKIP, but tells a more interesting story. As I said at the beginning, the problem with this whole tale is that there are no heroes, and when there isn't a protagonist there is no real narrative to follow, and certainly nothing to root for. When the story is just depression and no hope, is it any surprise that people stop reading?

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