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Welcome, UKIP – the future’s bright, but do clear out those defeated councillors

Welcome, UKIP – the future’s bright, but do clear out those defeated councillors

🕔24.Sep 2012

One of the minor hypotheses in Chris Game’s general theory of local elections concerns the correlation between a party’s rating of its own current fortunes and the accuracy of its councillor listings on its national website. In brief: the greater the optimism, the greater the accuracy.

So it saddens me to report that, however upbeat may be the headlines emerging from UKIP’s annual conference in Birmingham Town Hall at the weekend – the party’s proposed name and logo changes, defections of ‘Top Tories’, favourable opinion polls – the party itself, or at least the website management, is hedging its bets.

The 2012 local elections weren’t great for the UK Independence Party. They fielded more candidates than ever before, but that’s about as far as it got – and in London it didn’t get even that far. Some party apparatchik overlooked – or possibly was instructed to overlook – the small technicality of putting the party’s name on the mayoral candidate nomination form. So Lawrence Webb, selected by London UKIP members as their candidate, had to stand under the label ‘Fresh Choice for London’.

Whether, with some indication of his party affiliation, Webb would have mustered more than 2.1% of first preference votes there’s no way of knowing, but I remember thinking that he was perhaps missing a trick. Personally, I’d have tried to make the best of a bad job, used all six words permitted on the ballot paper, risked the ‘Vote for a veg’ barbs, and gone for ‘Webb’s Wonderful – Fresh Choice for London’.

That wasn’t the first problem UKIP had had with ballot papers, but we’ll stay for now with the May 2012 elections. On the London Assembly the party failed to win back the two seats it had lost four years earlier. Nationally too it made no net advance on its rather modest 27 elected members of principal councils.

In the West Midlands, Birmingham itself has never offered great encouragement, and this year was no exception, the highest UKIP vote being 4% in Perry Barr. In the past, the Black Country boroughs have provided the party with at least a few seats, but the defeat in Dudley of the Lib Dem-turned-UKIP councillor, Malcolm Davis, ended even that modest representation.

Four months later, though, the party’s website is still in denial, and likewise about New

castle-under-Lyme, where its fall from grace has been even sharper.

In 2010 Newcastle, remarkably but genuinely, had the highest concentration of UKIP councillors in the country, with 23 at all levels from county to parish. But in May’s elections the last two of the five borough councillors lost their seats as Labour swept to power, and the fact that the website still displays their pictures strikes me as the reaction of a party that fears its best days may be behind it.

Which I have to say is surprising, because they’re surely not – whether you look at current opinion polls or the electoral playing field over the coming months.

First, the polls. The most recent, by YouGov for Wednesday’s Sun, put Labour ahead with 43%, the Conservatives on 34%, and the Lib Dems and UKIP level on 8%. Even as it stands, this was clearly good pre-conference news for UKIP, and dire news for the Lib Dems as they assemble in Brighton. However, there are good reasons for supposing that, if anything, these figures understate UKIP’s true position.

YouGov, like almost all the leading polling companies, does not prompt respondents by specifically mentioning UKIP in its voting intention question: ‘If there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for? Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat [in rotated order], some other party, would not vote, don’t know.’

Common sense and solid research both suggest that, if UKIP were mentioned by name, it would attract at least some additional support – as indeed would probably be true for the Greens, the BNP and the English Democrats. One pollster does do this, Survation (a not terribly imaginative abbreviation of ‘surveying the nation’), currently pollster to The Mail on Sunday.  In that paper’s most recent poll, those respondents intending to vote in the next election put Labour on 36.6%, the Conservatives on 29.4%, the Lib Dems on 9.8% … and UKIP on 12.2%.

It’s a toss-up which of the two Coalition parties is the more spooked by such figures. Immediately, probably, it’s the Lib Dems, whose monthly poll ratings from 1997 to 2011 never once dropped below double figures, but are now starting to do so regularly. Generally, though, as ever, it must be the Conservatives, who, even as early as the Corby by-election (probably in November), could find UKIP pushing them into third place in serious elections.

As for UKIP, almost everything over the next 18 months is just a rehearsal – for the elections that they were born for. Yes, the Euros – the European Parliament elections in June 2014, just 11 months before the scheduled General Election.

Able to focus fully on their anti-EU, anti-immigration programme, and aided for once by an electoral system that doesn’t discriminate against them, UKIP invariably do well in the Euros, not least in the West Midlands – which may be at least a minor reason why they’ve chosen to honour us this weekend with their annual shindig.

In the 2009 elections they won 16.5% of the national vote, pushed Labour into third place, and increased their MEPs from 12 to 13 out of the then 72. The West Midlands provided their second best regional result, a 21% vote share gaining them two MEPs: Mike Nattrass for his second term, and Nikki Sinclaire, who, among her other activities, has switched parliamentary groups and, earlier this year, got herself arrested over an alleged allowances and expenses fraud.

There’s a certain piquancy here, for it was UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s claim that, well as his party did in those Euro elections, they would have done still better, had most discussion of European issues not been swamped by our own MPs’ expenses scandal.

Farage complained too, with some justification, that UKIP were penalised by the cumbersomely long ballot papers necessitated by the closed party list system used in these elections. Many, it seems, had been folded, both by machine and returning officers – though whether for reasons of convenience or added secrecy was left unclear.

As a consequence, some papers opened in such a way that the last two or three parties listed – always alphabetically, never rotated – could remain hidden in the final fold. Whereupon some voters undoubtedly assumed that UKIP was not on their ballot paper at all and, Farage suggested, voted for rail union leader Bob Crow’s No2EU alliance or even for the BNP.

You might think, in the circumstances, that if the party was going to change its name, it would opt for something with an initial earlier in the alphabet. But no – the name change is simply from the UK Independence Party to UKIP, which may well get a louder cheer from journalists than from voters.

It’s obviously prompted, though, by a confidence in voters’ growing recognition and acceptance of UKIP as a mainstream party, and who’s to say it’s misplaced. 2014 will tell, for the prize on offer could hardly be bigger: top the Euro-polls and force the Government to concede a straight in-out EU referendum.

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