UK & World News

  • 26 May 2014, 22:13

Seismic Events But Can UKIP Hold It Together?

The success of UKIP in the European election is the first time since 1906 that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour has come first in the share of a vote.

So where does this leave the parties?

Labour increased its seats and vote share in both the council and local elections, but not by as much as UKIP. Both results point to a hung parliament. Under Ed Miliband the main opposition has not done nearly as well in the equivalent elections as Tony Blair and David Cameron did before they got into Number 10.

Surveys show that Labour still has two big liabilities - trust on economic management and Mr Miliband's own credibility as a potential prime minister. Add to these squabbling within Labour about the quality of their campaigning and doubts about whether Labour should sit out the EU referendum debate, and it's not surprising that Mr Miliband will only say: "We are in a position where we can win the General Election."

Some 49 weeks from that General Election, the Conservatives admit these results point to them winning fewer seats than Labour.  But so far Tory morale and discipline has held up, with only a handful of the usual suspects demanding a shift in UKIP's direction.

There are a number of reasons for this comparatively upbeat mood.

Labour certainly did not break through. The Conservatives believe their firm promise of an in/out EU referendum will be enough for many Eurosceptic voters at the next general election. The economic recovery is forecast to continue over the next twelve months. A detailed survey of those who voted UKIP last week shows that half of them would consider supporting another party at the next election and that they overwhelmingly favour Mr Cameron as the next Prime Minister.

Tories are also hoping to wipe the smile off Mr Farage's face by holding Newark in next week's Westminster by-election. It will be a bitterly fought battle. The UKIP candidate is its deputy leader Roger Helmer, who also topped the poll in the MEP election in the region.

UKIP have done well before in Europe elections only to see their vote dwindle to insignificance in the following general election. Having done dramatically better than ever, the party's task now is to hold itself and its vote together. Mr Farage created a lot of wiggle room by abandoning UKIP's last manifesto during this campaign. Agreeing a comprehensive, credible and appealing policy platform at the UKIP Party Conference in Doncaster this September will be an enormous challenge.

In his speech at UKIP's victory celebrations Mr Farage selected another target: Nick Clegg. He thanked the Liberal Democrat leader for kicking off the campaign by challenging him to TV debates and predicted Mr Clegg would not lead his party to the general election.

The Liberal Democrats face the most existential dilemma - if things go on like this there may soon be no party to worry about. Inevitably a significant minority of activists, including some MPs, is calling on Mr Clegg to consider his position. But the mood of rebellion has yet to spread to potential rivals.

Mr Clegg went into hiding after the results came in but emerged to reject either a "bailout" from the Coalition government or a change of leadership. Along with a number of other senior Lib Dems he argued that a new leader would not immediately help the party's standing with the voters. 

Mr Clegg's long-term ambition has been to transform the Lib Dems into a party of government, in the centre rather than inclining towards Labour. He has done that. He also reckons that there will be some electoral dividends since his is the only party openly in favour of EU membership. Unfortunately for him and his party these rewards have yet to materialize.

The next potentially seismic event in British politics is the Scottish Independence Referendum in September. The SNP held two MEPs but did not strengthen their position. Indeed, with the Lib Dems dropping out of the picture in Scotland as well, UKIP beat the SNP to the last seat, albeit with 10% of the vote. Scotland now has two nationalist parties, Scottish Nationalists and UK nationalists. In all parties in favour of maintaining the Union - Labour, Conservative, UKIP, Lib Dem took 61% of the votes in Scotland.

The rise of UKIP was in line with the rise of populist parties across much of the rest of the EU. In all populists on left and right, pre-occupied with their country's national interests, will make up about a third of the new European Parliament.

But together the establishment Social Democrat and Christian Democrat blocks will have a clear majority. Many predict that they will club together in a de-facto "Grand Coalition" echoing the left-right coalition now in place in Germany, the EU's dominant power.

Mr Cameron has already rejected the nominations for European Commission President suggested by the European Parliament. He also intends to renegotiate Britain's position in Europe with the other 27 member states.

Much will depend for the UK on how the establishment in the EU reacts to the populist reaction against it in these elections - reform or press on regardless.

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