Many a Conservative MP feared the worst when the local ballot boxes were opened. Their concerns were fully realised.
The UK Independence Party won on average 25 per cent of the vote, by far its best ever election performance, easily eclipsing the 16 per cent it won in the 2004 and 2009 European elections. As anticipated, given its socially conservative stance on everything from gay marriage to immigration, the party typically did best in places where pensioners are plentiful and university graduates thin on the ground.
In doing so well, Ukip confounded expectations that while it might win votes it would end up with few seats. Before yesterday, there were just 24 Ukip councillors across Britain. On Thursday, the party gained over 100.
Ukip’s vote increased largely regardless of whether a ward was previously a Conservative or a Labour stronghold. Nevertheless, the Conservatives were clearly the biggest losers from the Ukip surge. A particularly strong Ukip advance made a 12-point difference to the Tory vote, whereas the equivalent figures for the Liberal Democrats and Labour were six points and five points respectively.
More generally, not only was the Conservative vote on average nine points lower than four years ago, but where a systematic comparison could be made it was also four points lower than in last year’s local elections. The BBC estimated the Tories’ performance was worth just 25 per cent of the vote in a general election, a rating equal to the worst the party ever suffered under John Major’s administration, and far too close for comfort to the 23 per accorded to Ukip.
However, once again it was the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who suffered the biggest drubbing. Overall, their vote was down on four years ago by no less than 12 points. Moreover there was no evidence that the party’s vote was holding up better in its strongholds; its vote went down by 14 points in wards where they won over 45 per cent of the vote in 2009.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats suffered the ignominy of winning just 1.4 per cent of the vote and coming seventh in South Shields, the party’s worst ever performance in a post-war English parliamentary election. Hopes that Eastleigh represented a turning point in the party’s fortunes have evaporated.
Labour did manage to increase its share of the vote in the local elections (though not in South Shields). Given how badly the party did in 2009, some progress was inevitable. But an average eight-point increase on 2009 was insufficient to quell the doubts about whether the party has done enough to win voters’ hearts.
In most places Labour’s vote was still down on what it achieved when these councils were fought over on the same day as the 2005 general election. The BBC estimated its projected share as just 29 per cent – well short of what it achieved in the years immediately preceding its 1997 general election success. The Coalition may have its troubles – but Ed Miliband still has to prove he can capitalise on them.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University