Inside Westminster: We might have entered an era of four-party politics

The political system has had a shock. Ukip tapped into something real, and angry

Share

The European election campaign was shaped by a huge gamble by Nick Clegg. He took the unusual step of actually talking about Europe in a Euro election, and to parade rather than mask the Liberal Democrats’ pro-EU credentials.

By taking on Nigel Farage in two broadcast debates last month, the Deputy Prime Minister ensured that Europe was discussed more than at any European Parliament election since they began in 1979.

His motive was both honourable and self-interested: the Lib Dems were on a hiding to nothing on Thursday, and Mr Clegg hoped to woo the one in four people who regard themselves as pro-European.

His gambit backfired. He handed Mr Farage a bigger platform and a perfect launch pad. The Ukip leader was never going to campaign on the small print of the common agricultural policy.

Ukip talked a little about Europe and a lot about immigration – a much more potent issue and the party’s direct route to the working class, where the anger about mainstream politicians is strongest.

Ukip’s performance in the council elections marks significant progress towards its goal of becoming the main challenger to Labour – especially in the North, where the Conservatives and Lib Dems struggle. Ukip will now use the Lib Dem playbook: build a base on the local council and then target the parliamentary seat.

The Tories and Labour didn’t really want to talk about Europe or immigration. They were unsure whether to ignore or attack Ukip. Mr Cameron told us he is the man with the long-term economic plan.

Mr Miliband unveiled policies on GP appointments, private sector rents, social care visits and the minimum wage, which had nothing to do with Europe.

Mr Clegg argued, correctly, that going head to head with Mr Farage ensured greater scrutiny for Ukip’s policies and candidates. Its nasty side duly emerged. But, with the exception of London, voters were not repelled. “The man in the pub didn’t give a damn,” a senior Labour figure admitted. “He just wanted to kick all three parties. It wasn’t a general election, so it was a free hit.”

These elections will confirm Mr Clegg’s status as the whipping boy of British politics. There are some events that just stick to politicians and they can never move on. Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax. John Major and Black Wednesday. Tony Blair and Iraq. For Mr Clegg, it was his U-turn on university tuition fees.

Read more: Full local election results

Losing another tranche of councillors will be painful for the Lib Dems. Local activists wonder what will be left of the party at grassroots level, especially if it enters another coalition next year. Yesterday’s council results suggest that is a very possible outcome; it is hard to see either Labour or the Conservatives winning an overall majority.

There is already pressure from some Lib Dems for Mr Clegg to resign as leader. He will not be moved. He believes that bailing out, just when the economy is improving, would undermine the prospects of showing that “coalition works”, the Lib Dems’ holy grail.

When the Euro results are announced tomorrow, it will look like Britain has entered an era of four-party politics. I suspect that time will tell us we have three and a half parties; for once, Mr Farage will to settle for half a pint.

True, he reached parts of the electorate that the other parties could not. But under first past the post, it will be very difficult for Ukip to win more than a handful of parliamentary seats next year.

The spotlight will now fall on Ukip’s undefined domestic policies and may prove very unflattering. Mr Farage refused to be pinned down in the past month on the grounds that he was fighting a European election, but has a lot of policy pruning to do.

An across-the-board “flat tax” would hurt the working classes he aspires to champion. Calling for spending cuts while making pledges to spend more will look inconsistent.

Yet we now know that Ukip will definitely shape the general election. It will be the wildest of wild cards. The three mainstream parties will analyse and re-analyse the results of Thursday’s elections as they try to predict the “Ukip effect” next May.

The political system has had a 10,000-volt shock. Ukip tapped into something real, and angry. People who voted for it cannot all be dismissed as wanting to turn back the clock to a better yesterday.

The three main parties need a convincing story on immigration. They shouldn’t ape Ukip but need to start talking about the benefits of migration instead of about how to stop migrants from drawing benefits.

The Conservatives take comfort because Mr Miliband is under more pressure from his own party this weekend than Mr Cameron. Yet Ukip may inflict more damage to the Tories than Labour at the general election, by depriving them of victory in key marginal seats. A “vote Farage, get Miliband” warning may not cut as much ice as the Tories expect.

Labour cannot rely on Mr Farage to let it win by default. Mr Miliband’s call for a more responsible capitalism ought to appeal to the voters who feel “left behind” by the recession and globalisation.

But many of them went to Ukip on Thursday and have not heard Labour’s message. Time is running out for Mr Miliband to get it across.

Read more: Labour and Tories left reeling
Coalition tries to shift focus
Labour takes Cameron's 'favourite' council
Farage: 'The fox is in the henhouse'
Ukip: London 'too educated and cultured' to vote for us
'I'm not resigning' says Clegg

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
 

‘They’ve seen the future – and got it for a song’: the unlikely history of Canary Wharf

Jack Brown
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee