Scotland has long been used to four-party politics. Yesterday, England awoke to the dramatic news that it was now experiencing it too.
Given it was running at 12 per cent in the UK-wide opinion polls, Ukip was expected to put in a record local election performance. But no-one thought the party do anything like as well as it actually did – 25 per cent of the vote on average in the wards it fought. That was more than enough to leave the traditional masters of local elections, the Liberal Democrats, trailing them badly.
UKIP’s vote did not come solely at the Conservatives’ expense. But in line with the evidence of the opinion polls, it appears to have come disproportionately from that direction. On average the Conservative performance was some six points worse where Ukip’s advance was particularly strong. The impact of a strong Ukip performance on both Labour and Liberal Democrat support was more like two-and- a-half points.
The best Ukip performances often came in a certain kind of place – one with relatively few graduates and more than its fair share of pensioners. This is the slice of England where the kind of social conservatism espoused by Ukip on issues such as immigration and gay marriage is most common. It now seems clear the Ukip surge is about much more than Euroscepticism.
That suggests the cries from some Tory MPs that David Cameron should try to quell the Ukip surge by bringing forward legislation for a European referendum this side of the general election are wide of the mark. After all, the promise Mr Cameron made last January that there would be a referendum on Europe in the event of a Conservative victory in 2015 has clearly utterly failed to arrest Ukip – and one wonders why a second bite at the cherry should be any more successful.
Rather, Tory MPs should ask themselves why immigration has become such a potent issue for Ukip – and why people have been inclined to defect from the Conservatives in the first place. A perpetually ailing economy is unlikely to have made people more tolerant of immigration, while the initial trigger for the decline in Conservative support in the past 12 months was the “omnishambles” that surrounded George Osborne’s 2012 Budget and which undermined confidence in the party’s economic competence.
In short, it seems unlikely the Ukip genie will be put back in the bottle in the absence of some kind of economic recovery by 2015. But much will also depend on Ukip themselves. The spotlight will now be on the party – not just the spotlight of publicity but of scrutiny too. Thursday’s results have given UKIP an opportunity to become England’s fourth party – the question is whether it can seize it.
• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University