From its second place in the South Shields by-election to the swathe it cut through the county councils of England, the UK Independence Party can justifiably claim to be living its finest hour.
Nigel Farage says his party is now a force in the land. For how long, and with what impact, however, are questions that as yet have no answer.
The rapid rise of Ukip can be explained, in part, by the way it has supplanted the Liberal Democrats and the Greens as a repository for the protest vote – the Liberal Democrats suffering the penalty for being in government. It owes much, too, to Mr Farage’s sunny personality. To reduce its appeal to a combination of popular disenchantment with the Coalition and Labour’s failure to impress, however, would be to oversimplify.
The time to dismiss Mr Farage and his party as “clowns” and “loonies” is past. They have tapped into two big, and not unconnected, sources of popular dissatisfaction: the European Union and immigration. The lifting of restrictions on the right of Bulgarians and Romanians to work in the UK, from the start of next year, adds a topical frisson. With the Conservatives and Labour tiptoeing around both issues, and neither party bold enough – or frightened enough – to take the argument to Ukip, Mr Farage had a relatively smooth campaign so far as the politics went. It was with some of its minor personalities where he ran into trouble, but the party still captured seats far beyond its presumed heartland in the southern shires.
Ukip’s success sets its own challenges: how far, if at all, will it be able to turn itself into a proper party from the one-man band that it currently is, and how well will its new councillors acquit themselves? If the far-right BNP sets any kind of precedent for what happens when a narrowly focused party wins seats on local councils, it offers little comfort to Ukip. For all the alarm that surrounded the BNP’s first electoral victories, the BNP has just lost its last remaining council seat. Ukip councillors could face very similar problems translating their words into actions. In local politics, the party could well turn out to be a one-term wonder.
With the general election now only two years away, however, this is not a scenario that is of much use to the mainstream parties. The chief losers in Thursday’s elections – though not by quite as much as projected – were the Conservatives, not least because they had been the big winners in the equivalent elections four years before. The Prime Minister’s more hawkish noises on immigration and his promise of an “in/out” referendum on EU membership, conditional on the Conservatives winning in 2015, were clearly not enough to convince disillusioned Tories. So he has now to choose whether to tack further to the right – to try to recover ground from Ukip – or to stick with something like the present course for fear of losing the crucial centre ground.
At least, it might be said, David Cameron has a choice. While Labour made net gains in these elections, it did not benefit as much as it had hoped from the Conservative defections to Ukip. This was partly because Ukip’s anti-EU, anti-migrant stance seems to have attracted some Labour voters, too. Still more worrying for Ed Miliband, however, should be the party’s continuing failure to make any real electoral breakthrough since he took over.
At a time when the Government is beleaguered and divided on many issues, when economic growth is proving stubbornly elusive, and the argument – nationally and internationally – on austerity seems to be shifting, Labour ought to be making serious inroads into the Tory vote. That the running is being made instead by Ukip leaves Mr Miliband facing the question: if not now, when?