Friday, 23 May 2014

Real votes in real ballot boxes

For years, almost since the start of the coalition government, the press and BBC have been predicting a return of a Labour government in 2015. Labour MPs have been acting as if it were a certainty. Published opinion research has backed them up. For almost as long, I have been predicting that Labour would not recover the ground they lost in 2010 and that the Conservatives would probably increase their numbers of MPs, mainly at the expense of Liberal Democrats.

The results in the English local elections as they trickled in early this morning supported my prediction. If anything, Labour's failure to advance is more marked than I thought it would be at this stage. Worse for Labour is that their only major successes have come in London, reinforcing the impression that they are a London-centred party.

The sad loss of Kingston-upon-Thames bore out the second part of the prediction, although the lateness of the declaration suggests recounts in several close contests. There were bright spots, though: where LibDem organisation was strong (Kingston apart), we seem to have held on; and while there has been a large net loss, there have been some individual gains of council seats.

UKIP of course has been the major story. Nigel Farage's party has, outside London, been the repository of protest votes which Labour should have hoovered up. They seem to have affected Conservatives in the south and east, and Labour elsewhere. What remains to be seen is the quality of its new councillors. One recalls another extremist fourth party at the end of last century making local election gains, only to lose them all as the ineptitude of the new councillors over their term was revealed. However, UKIP has gained many more seats than the BNP did, and their members are generally sharper.

UKIP has benefited from media exposure above and beyond their deserts. One can understand those newspapers and blogs run by tax-dodging millionaires giving a boost to their mates, but what is the BBC's motive? Surely BBC News and Current Affairs is not, as some Tory conspiracy theorists would have it, run by friends of Labour who see UKIP as uniquely damaging the Conservatives? My own view is that they have no real knowledge of what defines parties - or even contact with the real world - and that they see elections only as horse-races, with UKIP as the plucky outsider coming up on the rails.

I hate to sound like Goebbels, but Farage is basing his campaigns on the Big Lie: say something outrageous often enough and loud enough and people believe it, especially if you lard your speeches with occasional genuine fact. We've seen it in his European Parliament campaign (see the EU fact-checking site) but it appears it will form part of his Westminster campaign. Gary Lewis of Maesteg has drawn our attention to the response of Labour's Andy Burnham to a UKIP smear.

What is the peculiar hold that Farage has over voters across the political spectrum? For the last few years, a Facebook friend, a former LibDem councillor who has been, on Facebook, tearing into the LibDems in coalition for their attack on social security and on the NHS in England (in which she has some justification). You would think that her protest vote in her council ward would go to Labour or even to a more socialist party like the Greens. Yet she publicly declared that her vote went to UKIP, whose policies would see privatisation of the NHS and even more misery for those on benefits. Nor has she ever expressed any racism as far as I can recall.

The full extent of UKIP's advance should become clear in the Newark by-election of 5th June when a known face which is not Farage's will be in the spotlight.

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