John Curtice: Ukip vote not as good as last year

THE PARTY apparently represented the most serious independent challenge to the existing order of modern English politics.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is greeted by supporters and councillors at Redbridge Town Hall. Picture: PA

But would the bubble burst as suddenly as it had appeared? Yesterday we learned the answer: a resounding No.

True, Ukip’s performance was not quite as impressive as last year, thanks not least to a much weaker performance in London than elsewhere. London’s young, ethnically diverse and generally well-educated population seems to share much of Scotland’s distaste for Ukip’s social conservatism on Europe, immigration and same-sex relations – in sharp contrast to “Essex Man” who delivered Ukip some of its best performances in Basildon, Thurrock and Southend.

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Even so, the party still averaged 22 per cent of the vote in the three-fifths or so of the wards in which it put up a candidate.

It was enough to bring the party 150 extra councillors, a substantial addition to the 231 it had previously, and more than enough to cast a large shadow over the big beasts of the Westminster jungle.

True, Labour made substantial gains of around 300 seats. But then the seats up for grabs on Thursday were last fought over on the same day as the 2010 general election – when Labour crashed to its second-worst defeat ever. Some progress at least was inevitable.

Yet in practice its progress had a snail-like character. On average, its vote was up by just four points as compared with the local elections four years ago.

Ed Miliband must be left with the nagging feeling that his party has not established the kind of lead that might well be needed as the Conservatives seek to build electoral recovery on the back of an economic one.

Indeed, in some respects the party was seen to be going backwards. The party’s vote was no less than nine points down on what it had achieved when most of the same councils last had elections two years ago.

The party itself was inclined to point to successes in London and in Amber Valley and Crawley, where there are crucial marginal seats. However, according to results collected by the BBC, the party’s performance in both London and in Conservative-held marginal constituencies was no better than in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, any presumption the party might have had that Ukip’s advance was only a problem for the Conservatives was rudely disturbed. Ukip captured many a Labour as well as Conservative seat.

There was, though, little doubt about the direction in which the Conservatives were travelling – backwards. The party lost some 200 seats and saw its vote drop not only as compared with four years ago, but also since 2012 – when the local elections took place after the omnishambles Budget that was to prove so costly to the party’s support.

While Tory MPs will be disturbed by Ukip’s continued threat, they may well be buoyed by the apparent confirmation of recent opinion poll findings that suggest Labour’s lead has narrowed to just a point or two.

In contrast, it was difficult to find a silver lining to the cloud hanging over the Liberal Democrats. Once the local elections were the party’s forte; now they have become an annual embarrassment.

The party argued – not for the first time – that it was often performing better in places where it already has a sitting MP and thus has a strong base of local support. Indeed, there was the occasional bright spot – the party actually did better than in the 2010 general election in Bradford East and Birmingham Yardley. But there were plenty of disappointments too, not least the fact that the party came second to the Conservatives in Vince Cable’s Twickenham constituency and lost control of Ed Davey’s Kingston backyard.

Consequently, on average Liberal Democrat support was down just as much – that is, by no less than 13 points – in Liberal Democrat MPs’ constituencies as elsewhere. In short, there was little consistent sign of the ability of Liberal Democrats’ personal popularity to stem the receding tide. And next year their own seats will be on the line.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University