Friday, May 23, 2014

UKIP and the 2014 local election results: what this tells us about England

With most of the results now in for the local elections, the predicted "earthquake" that Nigel Farage talked about has happened.

In 2013, UKIP came from nowhere to gain nearly 150 council seats, mostly in the East and South-east of rural England. Now it has been the turn of the towns and cities, and there has been a similar surge of UKIP support across the length of England, from North to South. For both Labour and the Tories, it now looks that UKIP can get chunks of their support from almost anywhere.

The London Bubble

Much of the support for UKIP has come from voters disaffected with the "Westminster machine": a professional class of politicians that no longer seem to speak for everyday concerns, or even talk in the same way. Although Europe and immigration are the two main issues that UKIP is most famous for (more on that here), many people vote for UKIP as a vote against a political establishment that no longer seems to think as they do, detached from their lives and concerns.

UKIP failed to make much impact in London, but conversely did extremely well outside of London, from neighbouring (but economically disconnected) areas such as Essex, all the way up to Rotherham in Yorkshire. This is the best way of showing in a concrete way how the "Westminster machine" and the London-centred media reflect the views and thinking of those living in London, but not really anywhere else. When we talk about the "liberal" mainstream, which was talked about during the New Labour years, and into the "heir to Blair", Cameron administration, we really mean the London mainstream. UKIP isn't popular in London because London is more liberal that most other parts of the country. Put another way, unlimited immigration (from the EU) is seen in London as a bonus for the city, whereas in other parts of the country it's seen as dragging down the prospects of everyone else.

The spread of the UKIP vote is therefore a clear indication of the concerns that people have. Londoners aren't concerned about immigration because the London economy is unique in Britain. Few places outside of London have been able to successfully replicate the "London model". The main reason for this because even if they wanted to, they couldn't; the economic structures of regional cities are fundamentally different, and have been for decades, ever since the end of the Empire. Put in another way, UKIP votes are a (perhaps illogical) vote against the effects of the EU and modern neo-liberalism experiment that Britain has been put through since Margaret Thatcher came to power. As illogical as this is for many UKIP voters (given that UKIP are a self-confessed neo-liberal "libertarian" party), this seems to be what some are thinking, especially in the traditional Labour heartlands.

The Tories economic strategy is to make the rest of the country more like London: a kind of international and European collecting tray of those who can't get work elsewhere. This then leads to a widening gulf between the poorly-paid, unskilled (and semi-skilled) worker, and the massively overpaid professionals in finance and related industries  This strategy makes sense to Tories because it is what they know; most of those in policy positions have little idea of how the local economies outside of London work (or used to, when they had industries). These same Tories talk about the example of Germany, forgetting that Germany today has nationalised transport, rental controls, much lower rates of property ownership, and a much stronger, collaborative union approach in the workplace. The Tories are laughable when you compare their ideas to how Germany is ran. Also, Germany strove to keep its industries competitive and efficient; in the UK, successive governments let them rot. Many UKIP voters also have this at the back of their mind.

Throwing the cat amongst the pigeons

Looking at the spread of votes more closely, we can see that UKIP are challenging the Conservatives as the opposition to Labour in the North of England; in the South, they are biting at Labour's heels for second place there, too.

To put it another way, this makes things nightmarishly-complicated for next year's general election, and potentially for the foreseeable future if UKIP's vote share stays around ten per cent or higher in the longer-term. Such a vote share effectively denies the Tories a chance of getting a decent number of constituencies in the North, meaning that they would have to rely on a much bigger share in the south and midlands; which is effectively impossible. Conversely, there is also a danger that Labour may lose out on some of its "key" seats next year in the South, in order to gain an overall majority, due to some Labour voters transferring to UKIP.
This would make the Midlands the most heavily-fought for part of the country, if the Conservatives and Labour understand that UKIP may well deny them seats that they might normally be expected to win in order to gain a majority.

UKIP therefore may well have the side-effect of making Labour and Tory "heartlands" effective no-go areas for the rival main party, where the only real opposition is UKIP. This would make the north-south socio-political divide even more glaring.

The effect of UKIP also means that all "conventional" methods of predicting results are possibly useless in some cases. Political analysts like neat formulas that say "if Party X wins here, they'll get X number of seats in a general election". These formulas do not factor in UKIP, and as UKIP's effect is so new that it's hard for many experienced analysts to accurately dissect, this means that a potential new era of four-party politics means that all the old political assumptions may have to be thrown out of the window.

UKIP is making English politics a hell of a lot more complicated for everyone else.

England turning into a European democracy?

The local elections have also confirmed all the signs pointing to a potentially historic realignment, and the establishment of a four-party political system. Since the 1990s, Wales and Scotland have already had this; England can now say it has it too.

Comparisons have been made between UKIP now and the SDP in the 1980s. But is a false comparison, because UKIP voters are not the same people as who voted for the old SDP. UKIP voters today represent both the rural and urban working class, some semi-skilled workers, as well as more marginal parts of society. This is why UKIP is radically different (and more dangerous) in threat to both the Conservatives and Labour. In the 1980s, the rise of the SDP split the Labour vote, without having much effect on the Conservatives. This is partly what led to Thatcher winning the 1983 general election. But UKIP have now shown that they can take votes almost equally from both Labour and the Conservatives.

This shift in political allegiances is the biggest since the inter-war period, when Labour gradually began to take the place of the Liberals between the wars. The three-way split of that period resulted in a number of coalition governments; the current four-way split looks like it may be having the same effect now. Political analysts, factoring in UKIP votes, are now understanding that a hung parliament is more than possible, even probable, given the leeching-away of support from both Labour and the Conservatives for UKIP. Labour way well be the largest party, but are likely to fall below the threshold needed for single-party government; allowing the Liberal Democrats (assuming they don't lose a catastrophic number of seats next year) to stay in government as the junior partner to Labour.

So the rise of UKIP may have the ironic effect of making England (if Scotland votes "Yes" in the referendum) politically look more like a European state, with successive coalition governments, with four main parties in the political ring.

The problem this brings of course, is that Britain has an electoral system designed for only two main players, or three at a push. Does the rise of UKIP therefore bring back to the surface the issue of electoral reform? This would doubtlessly feed the perception that Westminster is a closed shop, barred to real people; a corrupt and creaking establishment that is ran by a bunch of out-of-touch mediocrities using whatever dirty tactics they can to preserve their privileges.

So UKIP's rise could have potentially huge consequences in the long-run.

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