European elections 2014 Ukip analysis: Unpopular big three parties give Nigel Farage room to manoeuvre

 

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Both Labour and Ukip had something to prove when the Euro votes were eventually counted on Sunday night.

Labour had to show it still represented a credible challenge to the Conservatives. Ukip needed to demonstrate that it did indeed represent a significant challenge to the Westminster party system as a whole.

Only one of them could hope to achieve its objective. It was Ukip which did so. Nigel Farage set his party an ambitious target when he said it would come first in the Euro elections. But his ambition was vindicated. He beat all the Westminster parties at the electoral game.

Ukip will not keep all the support it won last Thursday in next year’s general election. More than one poll has found that only around half of those who voted Ukip in the European elections would currently vote Ukip in a general election. Indeed, many a voter who backed Ukip on Thursday went on to vote for somebody else in the local elections held in much of England the same day.

 

Half of the 28 per cent it secured in the EU vote – 14 per cent, roughly Ukip’s level of support in the opinion polls for more than a year now – would probably be an insufficient base from which to mount a successful challenge for a parliamentary seat, even though concentrations of support for the party have emerged in Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Kent.

However, it is more than enough to require each of the Westminster parties to confront the question of how the less fickle half of Ukip support can be won back.

It is not evident that any of the parties have a convincing answer. Offering an in/out Europe referendum has not stemmed the Ukip tide. Promises to cut immigration are difficult to deliver while Britain is a member of the EU.

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The argument that the real choice at the next election will be between Conservative and Labour may well cut little ice, too. After all, as many as one in three voters rejected that choice at the last election.

Meanwhile, we have to bear in mind that, unusually, all three Westminster party leaders are relatively unpopular, giving Mr Farage’s “honest bloke” image unusual scope to make a popular appeal.

What might just make a difference is whether anyone can convince Ukip voters that they could bring economic prosperity. At the moment, they are sceptical about the Coalition’s claims of economic recovery, but are dubious about Labour’s ability to do any better.

Ukip’s success meant that Labour became the first opposition not to come first in a European election since 1984. On all three measures – the Euros, the locals and the opinion polls – the party now enjoys only a wafer-thin lead over the Conservatives. With 12 months to go to polling day, that is far too small a margin for any opposition to feel confident of victory – even without the complications of Mr Farage.

John Curtice is a professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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