Guest Post: Great Britain 2014
Chris Terry has contributed this excellent guest post on the recent local and European elections in Great Britain. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society and you can follow him on Twitter here.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland held local elections on the 22nd of May. As Northern Ireland has an entirely separate party and electoral system, it shall be dealt with separately.
Since 2010 the UK has been ruled by its first coalition government since the end of World War II between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The 2010 election put an end to thirteen years of Labour governance following the landslide of 1997. Thirteen years in government had taken their toll on the party, as had the financial crisis and strategic mistakes by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had taken over from Tony Blair in 2007.
However, the Conservative Party suffered from image as an out of touch party for the rich which did not understand the lives of ordinary Britons and toxicity amongst multiple demographics including ethnic minorities, public sector workers, the Scottish and the young. The party also suffered from the cruel effects of Britain’s First Past the Post system due to its highly inefficient vote spread.
The election had been seemingly blown open by the performance of the unknown leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, in the first Prime Ministerial debate in UK history. This unleashed ‘Cleggmania’ as the Lib Dems climbed to first in some polls. In reality Cleggmania was overblown and overstated, and mostly based on a large pool of don’t knows drifting into being very soft Lib Dems in polls. It began to dissipate by polling day and though the Lib Dems achieved 23.0% a vote, their best popular vote since 1983, they lost six seats.
The Conservatives gained almost 100 seats, but their 306 left them sort of the 326 needed for a majority in the UK. Britain was thus treated to the sight of coalition negotiations. While most of Britain’s European cousins view this as a norm post-election, this was entirely new to the British and journalists, politicians and academics rushed around trying to explain the phenomenon.
The final deal saw Clegg become Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition led by the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, an Eton educated former PR man and Treasury special adviser with aristocratic connections who many Brits view as the very personification of the British elite.
The new government had to deal with a yawning budget deficit of more than 10% of GDP, though Britain did not face the same problems as other Western nations regarding its ability to pay its debts. Nonetheless the government implemented an austerity agenda.
This pushed the Liberal Democrats into agreeing to some policies which they had specifically campaigned against in the 2010 election. Most infamously the party agreed to the trebling of the cap for university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year (the system acts something like a tax, however, with no payback before you earn above £21,000 pa, very low interest rates and debts written off 30 years after they are taken out if not fully repaid). Abolition of university tuition fees had long been one of the Lib Dems’ most recognisable policies, and the party’s MPs and candidates had signed a pledge organised by the National Union of Students to vote against any rise in tuition fees.
During Labour’s years in opposition the Lib Dems had cultivated a young, academic, left-liberal base based on their opposition to the war in Iraq and left-leaning policies under Charles Kennedy. While Clegg had always intended to take the party to the centre, the party retained a strong left-leaning vote which had, in many cases, rejected Labour on the basis of insufficient leftism. To such voters, the party’s coalition with the Conservatives was anathema.
The party also found its traditional campaign strategy somewhat blunted. Since the 1960s move to ‘community politics’ the Lib Dems have focused on a localist form of politics, with individual Lib Dem MPs pointing left or right depending on the constituency and adopting strongly localist campaigns. The Lib Dem mantra ‘where we work we win’ attests to a traditional belief in the party that there is no obstacle which can stop a determined local party as long as it pounds the pavements, leaflets relentlessly and provides excellent constituency service. Yet the party’s national exposure in government gave it a national profile and not a positive one, with Clegg moving from the most popular politician in the country to the least in less than a month.
The Lib Dems have been devastated in successive waves of poor election results, though the signs are that the party performs much better in areas where they have incumbent MPs, where the party’s traditional strengths of solid constituency representatives work in their favour.
Labour followed the election with a leadership race, which pitted two former ministers and brothers, David Miliband, the former foreign minister, and Ed Miliband, the former Energy and Climate Change minister against one another. The fight took on extra potency as David had been a key aide and ally of Tony Blair, and Ed had been one of a pair of Gordon Brown’s most trusted advisors with Ed Balls, another prominent minister. Hence the two had been on opposite sides in the often extremely volatile relationship between the two former Prime Ministers.
To the surprise of many, Ed narrowly won the leadership race albeit on the votes of the trade union section of Labour’s complex leadership election electoral college (with David winning MPs and party members).
Ed represented a clearer break with the past, wanting to take the party in a more clearly left-leaning direction. He almost immediately apologised for the Iraq War, for instance. The Conservatives quickly attempted to brand Ed as ‘Red Ed’. However research found that voters found Miliband not to be so much a scary 1970s socialist, as the Conservatives had hoped, but just rather ‘weird’, due to poor presentation on his part.
Ed, is the son of a famed Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband, and who therefore, grew up in a home which was at the very nexus of the British intellectual leftist elite, with frequent visitors such as the academic Tariq Aziz and the famed radical left Labour MP Tony Benn (who sadly passed away earlier this year). He took a sabbatical from politics to teach at Harvard in the early 2000s. He thus affects an academic, some critics say ‘geeky’ persona. He is unusually interested in ideas for a modern day politician, and is known for his series of ‘gurus’, often academics such as the American philosopher Michael Sandel, or the sociologist Maurice Glasman.
Miliband’s instincts tend towards a metropolitan kind of leftism, but he has also taken on some of the issues of Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ ideas which posits a more socially conservative Labourism which rejects the managerialism of traditional British Fabian socialism. Blue Labour embraces a more conservative stance on immigration, crime and Europe, but prefers a more continental style of corporatist economics to markets. It is localist and vaguely anti-statist.
Realising that his party would be forced into austerity measures in government, Miliband has come to embrace more state interference in markets, with policies such as the introduction of rent controls and a forced price freeze on energy prices to undercut what Miliband consistently refers to as a ‘cost of living crisis’.
Conditions since 2010 have provided perfect ground for the unleashing of a quietly rising tendency in Britain – right-wing populism. Right-wing populism and anti-immigration politics has been present in the UK for a while, but has been divided between multiple parties, predominantly the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the far-right British National Party (BNP). In many constituencies in 2010, especially in the North, these two parties and other minor right-of-conservative parties together won over 10% of the vote. This was largely unnoticed because it was split between multiple parties. After 2010 the BNP went into meltdown. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, specifically targeted them by his own admission, saying that most BNP voters are decent people simply angry about immigration. He even claimed responsibility for destroying the party.
The party has traditionally performed best in European elections. The political scientists Rob Ford and Matthew Elliott have compared UKIP’s previous pattern to being like a hibernating bear which emerged from its cave once every five years for European elections, would frighten the villages and then retire to its cave to sleep. As an illustration the party came second in the 2009 European election with 16.5% of the vote. It then fell to 3.1% in 2010 as it won strategic defectors from the main parties who opposed the EU. UKIP now polls between 10% and 20% of the vote in general election voting intention. The party has also won a string of second place finishes in by-elections, most notably in Eastleigh last year, and won an incredible victory in the 2013 local elections.
UKIP also benefitted from the coalition. Britain’s three main parties have now all been in power in the last five years. None thus provides a clear oppositional role. The Conservative Party has been unable to reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands as they promised a goal which always lacked credibility. In order to reduce immigration the Conservatives, unable to deal with ‘bad’ immigration, have restricted immigration which most Brits think is ‘good’ such as student visas.
The Lib Dems’ traditional role as a protest vote was also lost as the party entered government.
An additional boon to UKIP is that all three party leaders are from different wings of the British elite. Cameron originates in the traditional, aristocratic, upper class elite. Miliband originates in the academic, intellectual, left-wing elite. Clegg’s ancestry lies in the European aristocracy. A speaker of five languages he is a former MEP, and a former advisor to the ex-European Commissioner Leon Brittan. Clegg is thus of the Eurocrat elite. All three are around the same age (Cameron and Clegg are 47, Miliband is 44). Both Clegg and Cameron were privately educated, while Miliband went to a state school, it is known as the ‘Eton of the left’ due to the large number of prominent left-wingers educated there. Miliband and Cameron both went to Oxford University, and studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Clegg went to Cambridge. All three later worked as political advisors and critics allege they have never had a ‘real job’. In this respect all three have lived elite lives out of step with the lives of average Britons, leading to the impression of a ‘political class’ dominated by an increasingly narrow group of identikit politicians.
The famed UK expenses scandal of 2008-9 has also damaged the reputation of British politicians, and the public increasingly distrusts politicians on the issue of immigration.
Farage is part of the elite as well, a privately educated former metals trader from the London financial centre who has served as a MEP since 1999. Yet he successfully affects an authentic style, almost always being filmed drinking real ale in pubs up and down the land, or smoking a cigar, he dresses in a colourful, rural style, appears to speak his mind and goes on tirades against the political class. Under his leadership UKIP’s traditional Euroscepticism has been expanded. In particular the party has increasingly conflated the EU and immigration, stoking fears of renewed immigration from Bulgaria and Romania when the need for Bulgarians and Romanians to get work permits to work in the UK was lifted at the start of 2014 (initial figures suggest that the number of both groups working in the country has actually fallen since the 1st of January).
Britain has a long tradition of Euroscepticism, but for UKIP’s voters the EU has come to represent everything they hate about politics: an out-of-touch bureaucratic, dull elite (in a foreign country no less!) forcing open borders onto Britain.
Analysis of UKIP’s support base suggests it is composed overwhelmingly of older, poorly educated, male working class voters. These voters are deeply pessimistic about the direction Britain has been going in for decades. While Westminster journalists have often stereotyped UKIP as simply taking support from the Conservatives, the party takes around the same amount of support from Labour. The party is increasingly target traditional Labour party supporters. The recent book Revolt on the Right provides fascinating reading for anyone interested in UKIP’s rise.
UKIP’s support is predominantly English, and it is much weaker in Scotland, though it has some strength in Wales, especially in the North.
Like other right-wing populist parties, UKIP has had its fair share of controversy. A UKIP councillor received national attention and widespread mockery earlier this year when he claimed that flooding in the South West of England was the result of the legalisation of gay marriage. UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was forced to resign from the party after he drew attention away from Farage at the party’s 2013 conference for suggesting that women who did not clean behind the fridge were “sluts”, and then, as a journalist who questioned why UKIP’s conference brochure did not feature a single ethnic minority face, hitting said journalist over the head with a copy of said brochure.
Farage himself has received criticism, for instance, for saying that he felt uncomfortable when people spoke languages other than English on trains, or by saying he would feel uncomfortable if Romanians moved next door to him.
Scotland has seen the rise of a different type of populist outsider, as the Scottish parliament saw the Scottish National Party win a majority in 2011, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. The UK and Scottish governments have agreed to a binding referendum on Scottish independence to be held on the 19th of September. The SNP has a strong base in Scotland, and has appeared to be newly dominant in Scotland since 2011 due to a perennially weak and incompetent Scottish Labour Party.
Other parties of note are Plaid Cymru, the much weaker Welsh nationalist party, and the Greens, who in Britain are of a rather eco-socialist variety. They hold only one MP at Westminster, in the radical left wing seaside city of Brighton, known for its gay community and liberalism, but have strength in some regions of the country and do well in PR elections.
The Structure of British local government
British local government has a complex structure which differs widely between different regions due to both repeated reform attempts from central government and different histories.
The UK has a highly centralised political system and is often described as one of the most centralised countries in the world. Most of the local councils’ money has traditionally come from central government grants. The only tax that local government can levy in the UK is council tax, a property tax based on house prices, which is widely disliked as it is the only tax that comes in the form of a bill, and is perceived as regressive, hitting poor pensioners the hardest. Many would like to see a more devolved tax system, but Britain suffers from yawning regional disparities in wealth and hence a more localised tax system would tend to result in essentially taking money from poorer regions without a system of equalisation payments.
British local government has often been treated as little more than a delivery mechanism for central government policies. In the Labour years, when money was good, there was a tendency to create extra funds of central government money for local government but to ruthlessly ‘ring-fence’ it (make sure that the money could only be spent on that one area). The coalition substantially reduced ring-fencing in government and introduced a general power of competence which vastly expanded what councils could theoretically do but also substantially cut central government funding to councils (which was cut by 30%) meaning that councils could rarely afford to be more than managers of core services. No other government funding has been cut so radically. The Local Government and Communities minister, Eric Pickles, has also been fond of occasional diktat from Whitehall, trying to force local government into keeping weekly waste collections (some had gone to fortnightly as a cost-saving measure) and freezing their council tax rates. Under the coalition’s localism act councils must hold referendums if they raise council tax by more than a certain percentage. In response some councils have instead raised their council tax by 0.01% less than the limit to avoid a referendum. In theory, councils receive extra funds from central government for freezing their council tax but councils fear this money will evaporate with time putting them into further financial strain.
As local government is so anaemic in the UK turnouts have historically been low in UK local elections. Concern has been quite strong about turnout in local elections for a while, but in truth turnouts bottomed out in the period between 1998 and 2002 with a string of sub-30% scores and have now stabilising in the mid-30s. This is low compared to local elections in other countries but historically turnouts were not much higher than this in the 1970s. Turnout is very down when compared to the 1980s, but this was a period of extreme political polarisation in the UK which boosted turnouts and political engagement across the board.
Another aspect for the anaemic quality of local government is that local elections are most often used to comment on the performance of central government rather than to vote on genuinely local issues. Local elections in the UK are rarely truly ‘local’ as a result. In the vast majority of council areas traditional political parties vie for control, though the Liberal Democrats have often pursued a strategy of running much more heavily localised campaigns.
Local elections, as a result, suffer from a notable differential turnout effect whereby supporters of the opposition tend to tend out much more than supporters of the government (as in other mid-term elections internationally such as US mid-terms).
There are different types of councils in different parts of the UK with differing responsibilities and different systems of election.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, councils are single-tier and elected by the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation in all-at-once elections. The Scottish councils were last elected in 2012, whereas the Northern Irish councils are up for election this year (more on this in a forthcoming article).
In Wales, there is also a system of unitary councils elected all at once using a bloc voting system in multi-member wards.
In England the systems become much more complex.
By far and away Britain’s largest city, London is governed by 32 ‘borough councils’. London is a massive international city, with a population of 8.5 million – as much as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland put together. It represents 15% of the UK population. London’s boroughs are technically single-tier but since 2000 they share power with a directly elected Mayor of London, currently the Conservative Boris Johnson, famed for his eccentric, ‘upper class buffoon’ persona.
Nevertheless the vast majority of local services are provided by the boroughs, with the Mayoralty controlling economic structuring, transport and police across London.
The London Boroughs are all elected all-at-once on a four year cycle. The boroughs feature multi-member wards (the constituencies of local government) generally with 3 councillors each (though some 2 member wards have recently appeared).
18% of the population of the UK lives in the Metropolitan counties of the North of England. These six counties, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire are highly urbanised areas and essentially vast urban conurbations around the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Sunderland, Birmingham (Britain’s second largest city and the largest municipality in Europe), and Leeds.
The Mets used to be two-tier authorities, with the Metropolitan counties having their own higher level. This was abolished in the 1980s though there is some joint working at the county level. This collaboration has recently been increased as a way of reducing costs, with the most notable being the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
The Mets are elected by a system of election by thirds. All wards in the Metropolitan councils have three councillors. One of these is elected each year to a four year term with one ‘fallow’ year. This system is supposed to provide a regular injection of accountability and new blood, but is increasingly criticised as costly, reducing turnout due to electoral fatigue and causing poor governance as councillors are distracted by elections for multiple months most years.
The most common type of council in the UK is district councils. These are two-layer councils with a county council above them. District councils handle housing, planning, leisure and recreation, waste collection, collection of council tax and environmental health. County councils handle local education authorities, transport, fire, social services, libraries and waste disposal.
Counties are elected in a four year cycle in the traditional first past the post single-member style. They were last up for election in 2013. Districts are allowed to choose between election by thirds (hence some wards have a local election literally every year as county councils are elected in the ‘fallow’ year), election by halves and election all at once. Most of those elected all at once were last elected in 2011 and will be next up in 2015.
Most of the district councils are rather small and rural.
In recent years there has been an increasing move towards the creation of unitary authorities, merging the responsibilities of districts and counties to reduce duplication and to create clearer lines of accountability. Unitaries come in two types. The first covers large towns or small cities outside the metropolitan areas which have been deemed large enough to support the necessary tax base to support one, such as Plymouth, Bristol, Peterborough or Portsmouth.
The other fashion has been to merge districts in large rural areas into one massive county council with the powers of the district councils in areas where district councils are deemed too small to support themselves. This has happened in areas such as Cornwall, Wiltshire, Northumberland and County Durham. These areas are typically largely rural or covered by small towns.
Most councils in Britain are governed by a fairly typical cabinet model, but since 2000 councils may introduce a directly-elected mayor with wide-ranging executive powers, usually this is done by referendum. Only fifteen councils have introduced the elected mayor model, four of which are London boroughs, Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. A fifth elected mayor, in Watford, was up for election this year as well. Elected mayors are elected using a preferential system known as the Supplementary Vote system. SV features ballots laid out like a traditional British ballot paper except with a second column for a second preference. Voters may thus cast two preferences. A mayoral candidate who wins 50%+1 in the first round is deemed elected, if this does not happen then all but the top two are eliminated and second preferences redistributed. The plurality winner then wins. The system thus guarantees a wider mandate than First Past the Post but does not guarantee a majority as in AV or a two round system. SV means that voters must strategically vote for one of the top two candidates with their second vote. There is evidence that voters do not properly understand the system, with a significant minority of voters casting two preferences for one candidate (which obviously cannot transfer).
However, elected mayors themselves are widely seen as a success, improving governance, transparency and visibility for their communities. Polling suggests that 50% of the public in councils with an elected mayor can name their mayor, whereas only 10% of the public in councils with the usual model can name their council leader. Central government has often tried to push the elected mayoral model, especially in councils seen as poorly run and in big cities. Local government has often pushed back against the model, however. Councillors often fear losing power to elected mayors. In 2012 the government held referendums on elected mayors in the 10 biggest cities in England outside London. In Liverpool and Salford the referendums were, in essence, pre-empted, but of the remaining 8 cities only Bristol chose the mayoral model.
Prior local elections held alongside EP elections have shown a noticeably stronger result for UKIP.
The seats up this year were last up in 2010 and held alongside the general election. This means that they represent the last set of good results for the Lib Dems since before coalition, but also that Labour performed well in 2010 due to the high turnout.
European Parliament Elections in the UK
Since 1999, European parliament elections in Great Britain take place in the framework of a closed-list proportional representation. Britain elects 70 MEPs (3 more are elected in Northern Ireland) in regions, with one region representing Scotland and one Wales, and England split into the nine regions of East of England, East Midlands London, North East England, North West England, South East England, South West England, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The regions range from 3 seats (North East England) to 10 seats (South East England) in size creating effective thresholds between 7% and 20%. This makes the UK system fairly disproportionate, but it does also mean that the SNP and Plaid can win seats in their regions which a single constituency with a national threshold would stop (neither party would be capable of winning more than 3% nationally).
The PR system has allowed for the entry of smaller parties into the European Parliament, most notably UKIP, but the Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the far-right BNP also won seats in 2009.
Eurosceptic parties tend to perform better in EP elections. The prior success of UKIP in these elections is especially notable but the Conservatives also tend to perform better than in European elections on the same day.
The campaign was predominantly notable for an attempt by the Liberal Democrats and UKIP to polarise the election for their own interests.
In March Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to a televised debate about whether to stay in or get out of the European Union, an eternal British political debate which practically predates UK accession itself. Clegg’s challenge was issued on his LBC radio show. By sheer coincidence, Nigel Farage decided to accept his challenge the next day, on his LBC radio show. It may not surprise readers to learn that one of the debates was hosted by LBC.
Both leaders sought to portray the other parties as scared of participating in a debate on this subject. Clegg sought to portray the Conservatives as taking a confused position on Europe (the Conservatives, who have a softly Eurosceptic stance re pledged to support a referendum on the EU in 2017 if they are re-elected), and to portray Labour as having no position at all (Labour’s campaign was noticeably silent on EU issues). Farage merely hoped to present all three leaders as in hoc to an EU elite which ‘truly’ made the laws in the UK.
The first debate was widely seen as a victory for Clegg by the press, until the instant polls came out and revealed that voters saw Farage as the winner, a reminder of just how unpopular Clegg was (and some might argue, how out of touch London-based journalists are with the population at large).
Clegg was also deemed to have lost the second debate, by a more convincing margin. Clegg’s hope had not been, in truth, to convince a majority of the British public of his view, however. While a majority of Brits are Eurosceptic, the Lib Dems’ potential vote is highly Europhile and he hoped to galvanise this support. There was also a sense that with the party in for a poor result that Clegg was attempting to demonstrate that the party at least lost by standing up for what it believes in.
In the end the effect of the debates on the polls seemed to be to help UKIP while the Lib Dems did not move.
Labour fought a campaign entirely on national issues. Using the campaign to mercilessly attack Nick Clegg, hoping to lock down the defectors from the Lib Dem left it has won since 2010 and to gain further votes from 2010 Lib Dems who are now ‘Don’t Knows’, which represents as much as a third of their 2010 vote.
One of their party election broadcasts was named the ‘uncredible shrinking man’ and portrayed Nick Clegg giving up all his policies in government before literally shrinking in size until he reaches the point that a tiny naked Nick Clegg is chased across the cabinet table by the Downing Street cat.
Labour knew that much of its base was in both the Eurosceptic and Europhile camps and so avoided talking about Europe for this reason.
Labour hoped to win the election through a low profile campaign focused on winning through the momentum of being in opposition.
The Conservative campaign predominantly focused on its European referendum pledge and on its promise of EU renegotiation. The Conservative campaign claimed that UKIP “can’t” give you a referendum, that Labour and the Lib Dems “won’t” give you a referendum and only the Conservatives could.
The Scottish National Party focused on Scotland’s current obsession, the Independence referendum, hoping to use evidence of a strong result as a way to parle into the referendum. The SNP party election broadcast was entirely focused on the independence referendum.
The Greens were perhaps the only party to run a campaign based upon what they’d actually done in the European Parliament, with a well-crafted party election broadcast. The party complained of poor media attention compared to UKIP.
Polls generally showed a tight battle between Labour and UKIP for first place, with UKIP gaining throughout the campaign, opening up a wide lead over Labour. The party then fell back at the last minute, but remained ahead in polling intention. Polls showed that UKIP voters were, ironically, the most interested and engaged in the European election campaign.
Most polls showed the Conservatives in third, and the Lib Dems and Greens battling for fourth place.
Local Election Results and Analysis
Note: Vote share in the below is ‘Projected National Vote’. Due to the fragmented nature of UK electoral administration, and the variances in electoral system, it is impossible to get a total vote count for the UK on Election Day and this measure is based on sampling key indicator wards across the country to produce a figure of what the popular vote would have been if every single part of the country was voting at the same time.
The measure is obviously not perfect. I am cynical that it deals well with the rise of UKIP as it has nothing to compare against from previous results. Hence take the below figures with a pinch of salt.
Projected national vote share compared against 2013. Seat change compared against the last time this swathe of seats was up: in 2010. Councils are change in control from the day.
Labour 31% (+2%) winning 2121 councillors (+324), and winning control of 82 councils (+6)
Conservatives 29% (+4%) winning 1364 councillors (-236) and winning control of 41 councils (-11)
Liberal Democrats 13% (-1%) winning 427 councillors (-310) and winning control of 6 councils (-2)
UK Independence Party 17% (-5%) winning 166 councillors (+163)
Independents winning 89 seats (+36)
Residents Associations (local alliances of independents similar to the Free Voters in Germany) winning 53 seats (+14)
Green Party winning 38 seats (+18)
Other parties winning 4 seats (-7)
32 councils (+8) now under No Overall Control.
This is a remarkable election result for UKIP, who, for the second year in a row, have made significant gains in the local elections. While the party’s PNV is down from 2013, I am cynical of PNV’s capability to properly measure UKIP as there is no previous record to go on with its support in local elections. This is also a very different set of councils to 2013. 2013 saw elections principally in the County Councils covering rural and small town England. 2014 sees elections predominantly in London and the metropolitan authorities of the North. In that regard UKIP’s success is all the more impressive.
UKIP won a decent number of seats for its strong popular vote, albeit not as many as other parties. UKIP suffers from a highly inefficient voter spread, spread across the country. Its principal demographics of the elderly, the working classes and the low educated rarely cluster together in a way which makes it the largest party, making the UK’s plurality voting systems a significant barrier to its electoral success.
Opponents of UKIP have pointed out that UKIP still does not control a single council. Yet due to the elections by thirds system used in almost every council outside London it is literally impossible to take control of councils. If a party wins every seat up in a council elected by thirds it will only control one third of seats on that council.
UKIP did, however, win the most seats and votes in Great Yarmouth, Thurrock and North East Lincolnshire. These are all depressed areas on the Eastern coast of England, which have recently experienced their first ever waves of immigration. They are white, working class and relatively elderly places. In winning these areas UKIP threw them into No Overall Control. Local politics is likely to be difficult in these areas – largely split between Labour, Conservatives and UKIP. These areas will undoubtedly form key UKIP target seats in 2015.
UKIP also won the most votes (but not the most seats) in Rotherham, an area of South Yorkshire which has been one of the most punished cities by the financial crisis and has one of the worst economies in the UK. UKIP performed well in a by-election there in 2012, winning what was then a record of 21.7% of the vote, due to a scandal hit Labour MP and another scandal regarding social workers removing three non-white children from the care of their foster parents on the basis that they were UKIP members and therefore they had ‘concerns’ about their views.
The party also won the popular vote in Dudley, a suburb of Birmingham.
The party did very well in Essex, the county directly East of London, long associated with the white working class. The party managed to surpass Labour on Basildon council, and now controls 12 seats to 17 for the Conservatives and 10 to Labour. The party took 5 seats from the Conservatives on Castle Point council, and is now looking to form a coalition with Castle Point’s only other party – the Canvey Island Independents Party. The party also threw Southend-on-Sea into NOC, taking 5 seats (though Labour also gained 3 to go to 9 and there is a big Independent group).
Essex is traditionally a very socially conservative white-working-class-done-good area, and ‘Essex Man’ was considered the key component of Margaret Thatcher’s winning coalition. Yet in areas like Rotherham and North East Lincolnshire, it demonstrated a capability to win in core Labour areas.
The exception to the UKIP surge was most noticeably London.
UKIP won 12 councillors in all of London in three boroughs, Bexley, Bromley and Havering. All three of these councils are located in the Eastern outskirts of the city. Bexley and Havering were formerly part of Essex, and Bromley was part of Kent. Havering, where UKIP won 7 seats, is often said to be ‘culturally Essex’, a predominantly white, upper working class area.
By contrast, Labour won its best successes in London. Probably its most vaunted success was taking Hammersmith and Fulham from the Tories. H&F has been nicknamed ‘David Cameron’s favourite council’ and was seen as an austerity success story. It actively cut council tax, when most councils suffered serious budgetary pressures. Yet controversy over a local hospital closure, and local concerns over housing seriously hurt the Conservatives. H&F has historically been viewed as a strongly Conservative area, Fulham, in particularly, is identified with wealthy Conservatives and the borough is in London’s more affluent West. Labour also took control of the South London borough of Croydon from the Conservatives. While the party controlled Croydon between 1994 and 2006 this was actually because of the inequities of plurality voting. 2014 represents the first time Labour has ever won the most votes in Croydon.
Croydon has become more and more ethnically mixed in recent years, aiding Labour’s victory. During the election campaign, UKIP, suffering from accusations of racism, held a carnival in Croydon, hiring a steel drum band. The event was widely seen to be a disaster and ended with Nigel Farage apparently cancelling his planned visit to the carnival as the steel drummers refused to play on realising that it was for UKIP and protesters and UKIP activists hurled abuse at one another. Winston McKenzie, a black UKIP council candidate who attended the event described Croydon as “a dump”.
Labour also took South London’s Merton and North East London’s Redbridge from NOC. This is the first time Labour will have control of Redbridge, which, like Croydon has become more ethnically mixed.
Labour also took back control of Harrow after a damaging internal split which had seen Labour councillors break away and form a coalition with the Conservatives.
Labour narrowly failed to take North West London’s Barnet, where a local programme titled ‘One Barnet’ has run into controversy. One Barnet is an attempt to outsource almost all elements of the council, essentially transforming the council into a commissioner of services rather than a provider of them. Labour won 27 seats to 32 for the Tories and 1 for the Lib Dems.
In its heartlands in London, Labour ran away with the election. Labour once again won every single seat on the East End’s Barking and Dagenham and Newham councils.
In the North West councils of Islington and Haringey the party has long been opposed by the Lib Dems with hardly a Conservative to be seen. This was, in a sense, a battle of two lefts. Labour representing the working class and ethnic minorities and Lib Dems representing the left-liberal bohemian public sector professionals, academics, journalists and media types that live in that region of London. The Lib Dems had controlled Islington between 1998 and 2006 and ran a minority administration until 2010. The Lib Dems have now been totally wiped out on Islington council. Labour’s sole opposition will be a single Green Party councillor.
The Liberal Democrats managed to retain 9 seats on Haringey council however. Haringey has something of a reputation as a poorly run council, but the seats were more likely saved by the association with a strong local MP – Lynne Featherstone, who is currently serving as a junior minister in the Department for International Development. Featherstone is a left-leaning Lib Dem who is known for her local campaigns.
Central London’s Lambeth and Lewisham in South East London also saw their sizeable Lib Dem groups, both serving as official oppositions, totally wiped out. Once again, the Greens benefitted, with the sole opposition member on Lewisham being a Green and Lambeth gaining a single Green councillor to act as the only opposition.
The Greens also won the second largest number of votes in North East London’s Hackney. Hackney, once a synonym for crime, deprivation and poor governance is highly diverse borough which has been utterly transformed in the last 10 years as it has become synonymous was gentrification and London’s ‘hipster’ community of young professional bohemians which is based around the Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston areas of the borough. Hackney has benefitted from the leadership of its technocratic Labour mayor, Jules Pipe. Despite coming second in votes (as they did in the other boroughs already mentioned) the Greens failed to win any seats as they came second in almost every ward in the borough, as well as in the mayoral election.
The Green Party has long failed to do well in central London even though it would seem to be a perfect match for the area. This is probably because the Lib Dems, always successful at turning to face whichever direction is electorally convenient, have largely adopted the sort of green liberalism familiar to continental European Green parties. This has obviously been extremely mismatched with their participation in government with the Conservatives, however, causing left-liberals to flee to Labour and the Green Party.
The Green Party will now need to build on its high vote in this election and start targeting seats to build up a local infrastructure, but there is a lot of potential for the party in the North of London in particular, but also in central London and in Lewisham.
The biggest disappointment of the local elections for Labour was perhaps Tower Hamlets, an incredibly diverse borough which is 41.1% Asian (32% of which are Bangladeshi) to 45.2% White and 7.3% Black.
Tower Hamlets politics has long been strained by the importation of a certain style of tribal politics from the Indian subcontinent. The local branch of the Labour Party is under ‘special measures’, a 1980s invention designed to stop entryism by the Trotskyist grouping Militant Tendency. In Tower Hamlets Labour Party’s case special measures was imposed due to what is known in Australia as ‘branch stacking’ whereby members are recruited to a party for factional reasons. In Tower Hamlets selection meetings would often see the arrival of huge numbers of members who the party had never seen before. These members were, in reality, an attempt by Bengali community leaders of two rival factions to literally buy Labour Party selections. The party discovered that in many cases members did not even realise they were members of the party, or in fact admitted to usually voting for another party. The two factions are not ideologically different, in reality this is a battle along tribal lines.
Special measures essentially places the local party under the direct control of the central party, which has imposed its own selection of candidates upon the local party, balancing candidature along ethnic lines to stop any one group from gaining total control. The Labour Party is not the only party that has suffered from this in Tower Hamlets, but as the dominant party in the borough the party has perhaps suffered the most and perhaps has the most meaningful impact.
2005 saw the election of George Galloway, a former Labour MP who had opposed the Iraq War, on his far-left RESPECT ticket in one of the Tower Hamlets parliamentary constituencies. Galloway was accused of whipping up ethnic discord against his predecessor, Oona King, one of Britain’s few black woman MPs. Galloway had been elected almost entirely on votes from the Bengali community. While Galloway lost his seat in 2010, ethnic discord continued to build.
The elected mayoral model was adopted for Tower Hamlets in 2010. The elected mayoral was hoped to bring better governance to Tower Hamlets, which has been afflicted by serious amounts of infighting amongst the dominant Labour group. The elected mayoral model has, in neighbouring Labour dominated boroughs in Newham and Hackney served to unite the Labour group around the mayor.
The regional board decided that, for the mayoral election, the local Labour Party would be allowed to select its own candidate for the mayoralty rather than having one imposed.
The selection was won by Luftur Rahman, a Bengali former council leader who had been repeatedly judged unfit for selection for mayor by regional and national figures. Rahman was viewed as an ethnically divisive figure with low loyalty to the party (he failed to endorse the two Labour candidates for Westminster running in TH in 2010). Rahman had only gone through to selection after a series of legal challenges.
Post-selection other candidates complained of electoral fraud in the process, with evidence that very large numbers of people had voted who had not been resident in the borough. The party thus removed Rahman from the position and put into place Halal Abbas, another Bengali who had come third in the selection.
Rahman subsequently decided to run as an independent candidate. Despite the fact that Rahman had backed the ‘Blairite’ David Miliband for leadership of Labour Rahman received support from the left, gaining the endorsement of RESPECT and George Galloway, and support from left-wing factions of Labour such as the entryist Trotskyists of Socialist Action. Most damagingly, he received support from Ken Livingstone, the maverick former Mayor of London, and the candidate in 2012’s London mayoral race. Livingstone had formerly won the mayoralty as an independent himself after Blair had deemed him an unacceptable candidate in 2000. Livingstone later claimed he had only backed giving a second preference to Rahman.
Rahman won the mayoralty. As mayor of Tower Hamlets he has been deeply controversial. Rahman’s cabinet has been entirely made up of Bengalis. The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan accused Rahman of links to the Islamic Forum of Europe, based in the East London mosque, which is itself accused of being a front for radical Islam. He has been accused of misusing public funds, and of consorting with criminals. In March 2014 the BBC documentary series Panorama alleged that the mayor had diverted £3.6m worth of grants to Bangladeshi and Somali community groups in exchange for political support. Tower Hamlets is now the only council in the country which publicly funds faith groups, with most money going to the Muslim community. Panorama also accused TH council of bribing journalists and Rahman of failing to answer questions at council meetings. In response, the Local Government and Communities Minister, Eric Pickles, sent fraud investigators to Tower Hamlets. Both TH and Rahman deny any wrongdoing. All in all, Rahman has been accused of basing his administration in the needs and desires of only one very narrow community.
Tower Hamlets politics has long been stained by accusations of electoral fraud. Fraud within the Labour Party has been covered above, but there are accusations of fraud in the electoral system itself.
Britain’s electoral system is surprisingly open to fraud. The electoral registration system is based upon a system of ‘household registration’ where a ‘head of household’ registers all names living in the house. No unique identifiers are required, and no ID is required at polling stations, it is possible to vote by just giving your name and address.
Since 2003 Britain also has postal voting on demand, an attempt to raise turnout. In 2005 in an electoral fraud case in Birmingham the presiding judge described the postal voting system as one which would disgrace a ‘banana republic’. The system has since been made much more secure, but allegations of fraud continue. Britain is a country which has long run on a culture of trust. In part this has been deserved. Britain has never had a written constitution, in part, because Britain has never truly needed a written constitution. Britain is moving to a system of individual electoral registration by the 2015 general election, and the Electoral Commission has proposed a system of voter ID.
Accusations of postal voting fraud are common in TH, with activists claiming that some houses are registered for far more postal votes than could possibly live in the homes in question.
This year, in response to fraud allegations, police officers were stationed at polling stations in Tower Hamlets. Since 2010 Rahman has formed his own party, Tower Hamlets First, and the party was accused of fraud, voter intimidation and of illegally placing election posters in polling stations.
There have actually been very few investigations and arrests for fraud, and some argue that these allegations are overegged by political opponents seeking to delegitimise each other. In truth it is difficult to tell because Britain’s electoral system makes it difficult to detect and prove fraud.
The count in Tower Hamlets took 119 hours to count its ballots. No other council took more than a day to count its ballots. The extra level of security in Tower Hamlets was largely to blame. The count was widely derided as a ‘farce’, and the Electoral Commission is launching an inquiry into the count.
Rahman won 43.4% of the vote in the first round, largely believed to be almost entirely from the Bengali community. John Biggs, his Labour opponent, won 32.8% of the vote. In the second round Biggs won 6,500 second preferences compared to just 856 for Rahman, with Conservative and Lib Dem support flowing behind Biggs. However, despite receiving 88.4% of second preferences Biggs still lost to Rahman in the second round. Notably, 12,696 of the votes not cast for Rahman and Biggs in the first round did not contain a valid second preference, demonstrating the problems of the Supplementary Vote system.
Additionally, Labour lost control of TH council, winning just 20 seats to 18 for Tower Hamlets First and with 4 for the Conservatives. 3 seats lay vacant as in Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward the election was delayed due to the sad death of a THF candidate the day before the election. Hence there will be a by-election for these seats. It is likely that the Conservatives will team up with Labour during the next four years in an attempt to weaken Rahman as much as possible. Tower Hamlet’s divisive, ethnically polarised politics are likely to continue however.
Labour’s success in London extended to the London commuter belt, to cities and towns such as Reading, Basingstoke, Crawley and Milton Keynes.
The Conservatives perform better in the outer ring of London and in the West. The party’s strongest result was in Kensington and Chelsea, a central London borough synonymous with wealth, today known as the home of Russian oligarchs who treat London as their personal playground. The Conservatives held a reduced majority in Wandsworth in South London, well known as the council in the UK with the lowest council tax due to a long history of radical conservative rule. As mentioned above they barely held North London’s Barnet.
The party’s biggest success of the night was taking Kingston upon Thames council from the Liberal Democrats, a suburban council on the outskirts of South West London. The Lib Dems had ruled the council for 12 years, and rule of the council was largely perceived to have become dysfunctional. Last year the council leader stepped down after being arrested on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children. He subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. The council was also criticised for having the highest council tax in London. The Lib Dems cannot just blame the national swing here, therefore.
The Conservatives broadly performed well with the exception of Havering on London’s East end extreme. Formerly part of Essex, Havering has a skilled working class, white and socially conservative area of the type Margaret Thatcher won for the party. Internal turmoil over selections within the Conservative group had seen defections to UKIP and to independents on the council and the local Residents Association, one of the few in London, won 24 councillors, gaining 12, largely from the Tories. UKIP also won 7 councillors, surpassing Labour who actually lost councillors, going from 4 to 1 as the Residents Association and UKIP tsunami weakened them. It is likely that the Residents Assocation will take minority control, switching between Conservative and UKIP support for their proposals.
The Lib Dems were wiped out from large parts of central London, and, as mentioned above, lost Kingston. In the incredibly wealthy suburban borough of Richmond-upon-Thames in South London, where the party has traditionally been very strong, the Lib Dems lost 9 seats to the Conservatives.
However, the party did hold the last of its suburban South West London strongholds, Sutton, even increasing its seats by 2, though they lost votes, due to the effects of the bloc voting system.
Elsewhere in the UK the Lib Dems generally suffered in areas where they lacked council control or a MP. The traditional Lib Dem strategy of highly localist campaigns has allowed it to keep a hold in areas of strength. Incumbent MPs often remain popular in their areas, with popular incumbents providing a visible presence that is not Nick Clegg.
In addition to Kingston, the Lib Dems also lost control of Portsmouth city council. Portsmouth is a major naval city and port in the Southern coast. As with Kingston there had been local causes. The Lib Dem MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, was suspended from the party in January. Hancock also served as a councillor and was the only MP in Britain to simultaneously serve as part of his council’s cabinet. Hancock had long been a controversial MP, with a reputation as a womaniser and activist on behalf of the Russian government, had been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting constituents. Hancock’s suspension from the party was strongly opposed by the local party. He was suspended as a councillor and became an independent but the local party essentially formed a coalition with him so that he could remain part of the council cabinet before being booted out by the national party.
Hancock ran as an independent for the council this year. The local Lib Dems ran no candidate in opposition to him de facto supporting his candidature. Hancock’s bid for re-election failed, however, as he was defeated by UKIP. The Lib Dems had broadly maintained their strength in 2011 and 2012 in Portsmouth, but in response to the local scandal the party was dealt a massive blow. The party lost 5 seats and lost control of the council to No Overall Control. While the party remains the largest on the council with 19 seats to 12 for the Conservatives, 6 for UKIP (all newly elected), 4 for Labour and 1 Independent it appears that they will lose control of the council as Labour and UKIP, disgusted with the local Lib Dem group, are preparing to support a minority Conservative cabinet.
The Lib Dems held up well with their areas with MPs, outside London. For instance, winning the most votes in the Sheffield Hallam part of Sheffield, held by the party leader, Nick Clegg. The party regained a seat lost to an independent defection in Eastleigh, its stronghold. The party lost only one seat in South Lakeland, its other stronghold, where Tim Farron, the party president widely believed to be a future leadership contender has his seat. However there were exceptions, such as left-leaning, student city Cambridge, and the party was reduced to only 3 seats in Norwich where it holds the more Southern of the 2 constituencies.
The party was wiped out in Metropolitan boroughs. Manchester Withington MP John Leech, elected in 2005 on a student and anti-war vote can pretty much write off his chances of holding his seat in 2015 as there is not a single Lib Dem left on Manchester City Council.
The Conservatives held up well throughout that part of England outside London, whereas Labour performed badly. In the key Labour target of the South Western town of Swindon, for instance, the Tories actually increased their majority from 1 to 2 as they took a seat from Labour. Embarrassingly for Labour, Ed Miliband was asked about the party’s leader on the council he revealed that he didn’t know who he was and then assumed he was already council leader.
Labour performed well in the Metropolitan boroughs. They now hold every single seat on Manchester City Council, bar one, held by an independent who has defected from Labour. ‘Half an opposition councillor’ as some have joked.
The Greens also performed well in the Mets. They won the second largest number of votes in Manchester and with 4 seats are now the opposition in Liverpool. They increased their seats to six in the unitary council of Bristol, and to 9 in Solihull, an affluent suburb of Birmingham, making them the joint second largest party with the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt is another MP likely to lose her seat (her majority is a razor thin 175).
The only other Conservative held Met is Trafford, in Greater Manchester, where they continue to hold a majority of 3. The Mets, are, however, Labour strongholds anyway, with the exceptions of Trafford and Solihull. It does not help Labour to make gains in Liverpool, where it currently holds all six of the MPs, the elected mayoralty and an overwhelming majority on the council.
Fans of maps should see the interactive one of London local election results in 2014, 2010 and 2006 here.
European Election Results
UKIP (EFD) 27.5% (+11.0%) winning 24 seats (+11)
Labour (S&D) 25.4% (+9.7%) winning 20 seats (+7)
Conservatives (ECR) 23.9% (-3.8%) winning 19 seats (-7)
Green Party (G-EFA) 7.9% (-0.8%) winning 3 seats (+1)
Liberal Democrats (ALDE) 6.9% (-6.9%) winning 1 seat (-10)
Scottish National Party (G-EFA) 2.5% (+0.3%) winning 2 seats (NC)
Plaid Cymru (G-EFA) 0.7% (-0.1%) winning 1 seat (NC)
An Independence from Europe 1.5% (-) winning 0 seats (-)
British National Party (NI) 1.1% (-5.1%) winning 0 seats (-2)
The 2014 European Parliament election provided a huge success to UKIP, who became the first party to win a national election in the UK besides the Labour and the Conservatives since the rise of the Labour Party in the 1920s. For the first time, the Conservatives were pushed into third in a national election.
Regionally UKIP topped the poll in in the East Midlands, the East of England, South East England, South West England, the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Labour topped the poll in London, North West and North East England, Scotland and Wales, its strongest regions.
UKIP’s strongest regions are the heavily Eurosceptic regions of the South West, South East and East, but the party gained strongly in the North of England, as a result of the party’s increasing inroads amongst Labour voters. The party’s biggest gains were in Wales (+17.1%) the North East (+17.0%), Yorkshire and Humber (+16.8), and the North West (+15.8%) all strongly Labour regions and it came second in North East England (by 7.3%), North West England (by 6.3%) and Wales (by an incredibly narrow 1.6% in the supposedly one party state.)
The exceptions to UKIP’s big gains were Scotland (where it gained just 3.8%) and London (where it gained just 4.6%). It also showed a weaker rise in the East Midlands (+6.8%) and the South West of England (+12.6%) largely because these areas were ‘early adopters’ of UKIP.
In Scotland UKIP succeeded in electing a MEP for the very first time, sending shockwaves through progressive opinion north of the border which had long claimed that Scotland was immune to UKIP. Nonetheless, UKIP only gained a single seat. David Coburn, the party’s new Scottish MEP is already a controversial figure in Scotland due to his being the London regional chair, with the widespread perception that he was ‘parachuted in’ into a divided Scottish party branch against its will.
Since being elected Coburn’s views on gay marriage (he is opposed, despite being gay himself) and on Scottish Independence (in the event of a yes vote he wants to hold another referendum to try and reverse the decision after the 2015 election) have also been controversial.
UKIP’s appeal in Scotland has been blunted by its English nationalism and the presence of the SNP as an alternative anti-establishment, nationalist (albeit left-wing nationalist) party.
The SNP had been aiming for a third seat, and its coming second to Labour is something of a blow to the party pre-referendum. Yet we should remember the low turnout and that Labour is both in opposition in the UK and Scottish parliaments to the SNP.
London was also an outlier from the UK wide trend. As in the local elections, Labour tore through London, winning half of London’s MEPs, 4, (an increase of 2) on 36.7% of the vote. UKIP managed only 16.9% of the vote and 1 seat, the only region of the country where it came third.
During the local elections count, UKIP’s communities spokeswoman commented that London was not good for UKIP because it is ‘young, cultured and educated’, leading to guffaws from UKIP’s opponents who derided her as saying that UKIP was the party of the old, the stupid and the backwards.
Yet, there is an element of truth to this. UKIP’s support is most strong amongst white, elderly, poorly educated voters. Multicultural, youthful, highly educated London is indeed bad ground for the party.
Labour’s performance around the rest of Britain was poorer, however, whereas the Conservative vote held up well. With Scotland and London removed, the Conservatives would have beaten Labour. This exposes the weak position Labour is now in less than a year from a general election.
The Greens fell back slightly, but increased their seats by 1 partially due to a Lib Dem collapse, winning an extra seat in the South West to go with their seat in the South East (where their stronghold of Brighton is and where there are the most seats and the lowest effective threshold) and in London. The Greens may perhaps have had only 1 seat had it not been for ‘An Independence from Europe’. AIE is a breakaway party from UKIP formed by former UKIP MEP Mike Nattrass who was deselected by UKIP. The party appears to have acted as a spoiler on UKIP, with it going to the top of the ballot as Britain’s ballots are alphabetically ordered (hence UKIP was near the bottom), winning on average 2% of the vote in the regions it stood in (it missed Wales and Scotland). We can assume that the vast majority of AIE voters would have voted UKIP had the party not existed. As such UKIP would have taken the Green seats in London and the South West.
The Lib Dems lost 10 seats, reduced to only a single MEP, Catherine Bearder, elected in the South East, which has the lowest effective threshold. In fairness to the party they always perform badly in European elections where the party’s pro-Europeanism is unpopular and where elected representatives are too distant to use the Lib Dems usual tactics of building a popular local representative. The regional system also means that in many regions the party had won one of the last seats in 2009, just clearing the effective threshold for representation. With the party’s collapse, the party fell below the effective thresholds and lost seats almost everywhere, including influential MEPs such as former ALDE leader Graham Watson in the South West, and Vice-President of the European Parliament, and key Tory defector Edward McMillan-Scott.
Excellent maps of the European election result can be found on the Election-Data blog here.
Overall, the elections expose a new division in the UK, between London and the rest of the country. Labour’s strength in London exposes an increasing divide between it and the rest of England. This is apparent in public opinion data. For instance, on immigration most of the country very much favours more stringent immigration policy, but London tends to slightly favour immigration. Labour policies on the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ predominantly appeal in London where prices are highest. For instance, rent controls have little resonance in rural areas and small towns where rents are relatively low and home ownership is more typically the norm. Labour’s London strength is also because it is younger and multicultural. We can also see the Greens beginning to break through in London.
Labour also has its best machines in London, with estimates suggesting that a quarter of Labour’s membership resides in the capital. Labour has become a party of urban England, but a majority is unlikely to be won on London and Northern cities alone.
UKIP poses the party a big threat in smaller towns. The elections have put paid to the often touted lie that UKIP’s voters are universally former Conservative voters disenchanted with the coalition. UKIP is the representative of a vast social shift in Britain. The party won more votes, but also has a much loyal base. While the party’s European result includes a large number of ‘strategic defectors’ using the EP elections to say ‘no three times’ – to Westminster, to immigration and to Brussels, there are less than in previous years. Polls suggest that around 60% of UKIP’s voters will support it at the general election.
The Conservatives are broadly happy with their performance. The party lost to Labour in both elections, but only thinly by a few points. Polls also suggest it is only slightly behind Labour. This is a year before a general election. Typically the last year before an election sees movement towards the governing party. Economic confidence is quickly rising as the recovery is under way. The party will aim to put a squeeze on UKIP voters, who tend to prefer Cameron as Prime Minister to Ed Miliband and who may be persuadable to voting Conservative strategically to stop Miliband becoming PM.
Yet the party retains significant weaknesses amongst key voting demographics and in key regions of the country.
The Lib Dems have suffered yet another punishing result. Yet, in the results is a glimmer of hope that it will outperform its national swing in 2015, holding the majority of its seats.
Nonetheless, the party experienced an attempted coup against Nick Clegg on beginning the weekend after the election. A shadowy group called ‘LibDems4Change’ launched an e-petition calling for a leadership contest, and on the Sunday an unnamed Lib Dem leaked a poll to The Observer newspaper supposedly demonstrating that key seats were in danger of being lost unless Nick Clegg was replaced by the more left-leaning Business Secretary Vince Cable. On being released publically it was demonstrated that the poll had methodological issues (a debunking by the pollster Survation can be read here which shows that under ICM’s usual methodology the seats would have been held.)
The poll was later revealed to have been commissioned by Lord Oakeshott, a former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman from the early days of the Treasury who is known to be one of Cable’s closest friends. Cable rapidly distanced himself from Oakeshott, and Oakeshott resigned from the party and took a leave of absence from the Lords. Oakeshott’s coup attempt was widely viewed as incompetent and in a sense it may have strengthened Clegg by acting as a lightning rod for discontent before being defeated.
This is the last test of British public opinion before the 2015 general election, and the Scottish Independence referendum this September.
However, there is a by-election this Thursday, in the Conservative safe seat of Newark. UKIP is polling well.