John Curtice: Howard is not the only one who should fear the advance of the political upstarts

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As we already know how more than half the country voted on Thursday, one might imagine that it should be fairly clear what will be revealed when the European Parliament vote is counted tonight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As we already know how more than half the country voted on Thursday, one might imagine that it should be fairly clear what will be revealed when the European Parliament vote is counted tonight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is just how many votes the UK Independence Party has garnered and from whom. Opinion polls suggested it might have won as much as 20 per cent. But in the local elections it averaged only 14 per cent where it stood, while in London it could manage no more than 10 per cent.

But then neither the local elections nor the London Assembly elections were about Europe. Some voters will doubtless have backed UKIP in the European elections while voting for someone else in the local elections. If these split-ticket voters garner UKIP another 5 per cent of the vote, then that 20 per cent target will indeed be in sight.

It is assumed that would be bad news for Michael Howard, eroding the 12-point lead he enjoyed over Labour in the local elections. But the evidence from the local elections is less clear. The presence of a UKIP candidate in a local ward on Thursday seemed to hurt the Liberal Democrats more than anyone else. And while UKIP does seem to have hurt the Tories in London, it cut into the Liberal Democrat vote there too. It should be borne in mind as well that it was not just the Tories who lost out to UKIP in the last Euro elections in 1999 or to Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party in the 1997 general election.

For many voters UKIP is probably a convenient vehicle of protest. In this it is doubtless an alternative to the Liberal Democrats. So any UKIP breakthrough could well make tonight less enjoyable for Charles Kennedy as well as Michael Howard, helping to ensure the Liberal Democrats still end up coming third despite their second place in the locals.

Meanwhile, Labour may need to look over its shoulder in a different direction - George Galloway's Respect coalition. Respect did not fight the local elections so it could not damage Labour there. But it did fight the London election. And one little-noticed feature of the result was that Respect nearly managed to pass the 5 per cent threshold needed to win an Assembly seat. Indeed, it won 16 per cent in the City and East constituency where a large Muslim community appears to have backed Respect's anti-war stance.

Even if Respect wins no more than 2 or 3 per cent of the vote across the country as a whole, they are likely to be votes Labour can ill afford to lose. So Tony Blair should certainly not assume that his troubles are all over either.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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