Local elections 2013 – Tories’ right turn backfires

Gordon Nardell, Islington North CLP, crunches the numbers.

The headlines from last month’s English local elections are now well-known: misery for the Tories, meltdown for the LibDems, a lacklustre Labour performance, and the beaming countenance of Nigel Farage overshadowing all. In the run-up to May, a rightward drift in the Tories’ rhetoric over the past year or so became a massive lurch. The mask of the ‘big society’ finally fell away to reveal the nasty party once more bearing its teeth. The results have emboldened the Tory right still further, sending the party into a tailspin of anti-European populism. Meanwhile the likes of Progress make coded demands to Ed Miliband to move to the right on issues like welfare and immigration.

But what do the results really tell us about the parties’ prospects in 2015? These elections covered the 27 English counties in the traditional two-tier system and only seven unitary authorities. But data were also available from two urban mayoral races (Doncaster and North Tyneside, both Labour gains) and the South Shields by-election. And they are still real elections, so pollsters use the results to calibrate their projections of national equivalent share of the vote (NEV) — that is, local election data adjusted to cover areas where no elections took place, in this case urban areas where Labour does better.

PollsterFarageSpivs’ predictions underestimated UKIP support. In late April, Birmingham academic Chris Game used polling data and previous election results to produce NEV figures putting UKIP and the LibDems level at a 12% share of the national vote, while Labour at 41% enjoyed an 11-point lead over the Tories’ 30%. The BBC’s NEV figures based on the actual result gave UKIP 23%, the LibDems 14%, Labour 29% and the Tories 25%. So Labour maintains its persistent, if fluctuating, national lead over the Tories, and on these figures could expect a parliamentary majority of about 12. But 29% is dangerously low for any party seeking to form a government. This is the first modern election at which all three main parties have received less than 30% of the national vote, underlining just how unpredictable UKIP’s apparent success makes things. Hence the Labour jitters about how to respond.

One feature of these elections overlooked in much of the commentary is turnout — at 31%, down 10% on 2009 when those seats were last contested. This means the shift in voting share can’t be explained simplistically as Labour voters moving to the right. Labour did not lose a single seat to UKIP or the Tories. The poor turnout places UKIP’s result into perspective as part of a more general and already documented trend of voter cynicism towards the main parties — an “antipolitics” vote — rather than genuine support for UKIP’s toxic brand of racism-lite. UKIP also doubtless attracted many of the protest votes lost to the LibDems now they are locked into government.

Clearly some of UKIP’s votes represent conscious political choice. But that trend was exacerbated by the Tories’ ill-advised tactic of tacking ever further rightward. Such pandering to bigotry, far from undermining UKIP, has simply lent it legitimacy while backfiring spectacularly on the Tories. In 2010 the Tories came second in Eastleigh with 39% of the vote. UKIP scored just 0.2%. At February’s by-election, UKIP surged to second place with nearly 28%, pushing the Tories into third on 25%. Labour’s share of the vote remained stable. At May’s elections to Hampshire County Council UKIP climbed to 34% of the vote, winning three of Eastleigh’s seven wards, while the Tories slumped still further to 16%.

The Tories are discovering, in other words, that there is a difference between populism and popularity — a lesson Progress & co. would do well to learn. Any attempt by Labour to ‘triangulate’ rightward would do the party enormous harm and benefit the Tories. Standing firm against attacks on the welfare state, and resisting attempts to blame immigration and ‘Europe’ for Britain’s crisis, are not only right in principle, they are the soundest guarantee of a Labour victory in 2015.

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