Editorial: Ukip's dramatic emergence may yet throw the May local elections wide open

Leaders of all three parties will be watching to see whether Nigel Farage can sustain the momentum he generated in the Eastleigh by-election in February

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Labour and the Liberal Democrats today launch their campaigns for the local elections on 2 May, which will be significant as one of the last major tests of the political weather ahead of the general election. In 2009, the Tories swept the board in these seats – mainly naturally right-of-centre, shire areas – so the only question a few months ago was how many seats they would lose, and whether it would be Labour or the Liberal Democrats that took the most off them.

What has since complicated those calculations has been Ukip’s dramatic emergence, which is why the leaders of all three parties will be watching to see whether Nigel Farage can sustain the momentum he generated in the Eastleigh by-election in February. The wild card of British politics is still coasting along on 17 per cent in the polls, well below the 28 per cent it won in Eastleigh but enough to inflict massive damage on the Tories unless its bubble deflates before May.

The decision to field 2,000 candidates in the 2,400 or so seats is ambitious, evidence that Mr Farage is on a mission to consolidate his Eastleigh triumph and at the same time chastise his bête noire, David Cameron, for having once described Ukip as a collection of fruitcakes and closet racists.

Just as the Tories must go down in May, Ukip, which won only seven council seats in 2009, must surely gain. If the party makes a serious showing on 2 May, and then does well in the European elections in 2014, it will be legitimate to start talking about a realignment of the political landscape, or at least the English one; there’s still no sign of Ukip picking up in the Celtic fringe.

The temptation for Labour is to sit back and watch the two parties of the right lacerate one another. It will meanwhile take comfort in wresting seats off the Tories in the Midlands, where it came second in 2009 but where its 10-point lead nationally over the Tories will translate into significant gains. But Labour realises that the local elections are not entirely risk-free, and that simply opposing the Tories is no longer enough. Such considerations underpin the decision to make tackling loan sharks a priority in the local elections. Ed Miliband knows he must provide convincing evidence that Labour is starting to reverse decades of decline outside the traditional heartlands. If not, there will be concern about why the “one-nation” strategy is not making more headway, prompting doubts about whether a Labour victory in 2015 is inevitable.

The other interesting question in the local elections is whether the Tories’ own new strategy, placing a sharper accent on welfare reform and immigration, will start to deliver results, by limiting the damage that the Tories sustain from Labour, the Liberal Democrats or Ukip. With the economy becalmed, it can only benefit the Conservatives if the national debate continues to shift away from the deficit and wobbly credit ratings towards Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit caps and such issues as when immigrants should gain access to the NHS and legal aid.

Labour feels justifiably impatient with what it sees as undue attention focused on a handful of unrepresentative benefit cases. It is also starting to fight back against claims that it has no interest in reforming welfare. This is why radical new proposals have suddenly emerged from Mr Duncan Smith’s opposite number, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liam Byrne, which centre on restoring the long-lost contributory element to welfare. May will provide a test run, therefore, for the new approaches of both the Tories and Labour in an election that may yield surprises.

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