Ukip Tidal Wave Makes an Uncomfortable Summer for Prime Minister David Cameron

Last Thursday 2,300 local government council seats were up for election across England providing a difficult mid-term popularity test for the coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in Westminster.  For the main political parties the result was cataclysmic. For the first time in local election history the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all failed to attain 30% of the vote (Labour secured 29%, the Conservatives 25% and the Liberal Democrats 14%).

Election day belonged to Ukip – the United Kingdom Independence Party. Regularly derided as combination of ‘clowns, fruitcakes and closet racists’ by the mainstream parties, England’s fourth most popular political party made significant inroads at the polls increasing its total number of seats from 8 to 147. The main political parties were quick to dismiss the extent of Ukip’s success. But they were careful enough not to try and simply explain it as a case of bad ‘mid-term blues’. Whether Ukip, and its charismatic ‘anti-politician’ leader Nigel Farage, is really a harbinger of doom for the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats at the next general election in 2015 still remains unlikely. But last week’s result has severely rattled Westminster’s political leaders. And understandably, as Ukip scored 23% of the vote across England and has now become the official opposition party in local government in three counties: Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

But it’s a complex set of results. Ukip’s success is based on the belief that it doesn’t shy away from the issues that strike most fear in the minds of many Britons. The growth and floundering of the European Union is the focal point of Ukip’s criticism. Pretty much everything that comes out of Brussels (with the exception of the single market) undermines Britain’s political and economic sovereignty. The Human Rights Act, Common Agriculture Policy, Financial Transaction Tax and surging immigration; it’s all Brussels’ fault.

An overly simplistic view? It isn’t to many Brits who have become sick and tired of the big parties talking tough on how they will either repatriate powers or make Brussels more accountable. Both claims that are increasingly derided in the UK media given the herculean task a British government will face in trying to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU given the fundamental lack of appetite for further treaty changes among other EU member states.

The Ukip leader Nigel Farage (who incidentally is a Member of the European Parliament) is adamant that although the majority of his party’s supporters are probably disaffected Conservatives. That’s not the end of their recruitment drive. In fact Ukip has become the main beneficiary of protest votes since the Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in coalition. Where previously the Lib Dems offered the electorate a breath of fresh air, it’s now Ukip that enjoys being the repository of anti-establishment support. This point was clearly rammed home when also last Thursday, Ukip came a surprise second place in the South Shields parliamentary by-election in the Labour heartlands of the North East (the Lib Dems who would expect to be the main opposition party in the region crawled in an embarrassing seventh place).

Mr Farage claims the root of problem which has led to his party’s success is that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t delivering a ‘real’ Conservative agenda. But this analysis does not explain the surge in the party’s support over the last twelve months. Yesterday’s Financial Times reported that Ukip’s membership base grew by more than 50% in the last year reaching over 26,000. The figure in itself isn’t substantial but compared to the mainstream parties who are all seeing their membership figures nosedive (the Conservatives’ membership numbered 0.5million in the 1990s and now is wilting around 130,000) it paints a clear picture that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are going to have to work a lot harder at differentiating their policies and philosophies in the eyes of the electorate.

It’s a twist of fate in the British parliamentary system that despite Ukip gaining relative success at local government level (and Ukip expects to replicate this success in the next year’s European parliamentary elections) it’s unlikely this stellar progress will result in Ukip winning a slew of seats in the 2015 general election. Small parties are always squeezed out and it’s testament to the tenacity of the Liberal Democrats that it took them a generation to build a large cluster of parliamentary seats.

Mr Farage indicated in a BBC television interview last weekend that if an opportunity to stand for parliament presented itself after next year’s European elections and before the general election in 2015, then depending on the seat in question, he would stand. Events last week proved that the prospect of Britain’s first Ukip Member of Parliament may have just taken a step closer to becoming a reality, but we can be sure that David Cameron in particular will be spending the summer months giving more thought than he’d like to on just how can his party manage (neuter) the party of increasingly popular ‘clowns’?

Rupert Lewis is a Practice Director in the Corporate & Public Affairs Practice at Ketchum Pleon in London. He specialises in public affairs and reputation management and has worked with clients in most sectors including financial services, infrastructure, manufacturing, telecoms and gaming. When he’s not talking politics, he’s supporting Fulham FC or winning (mainly!) money on racetracks. Follow him @rupertlewis