Britain’s three main political parties are assessing the damage from local elections in which they were all hit by the “political earthquake” that Nigel Farage’s Ukip promised and delivered.
Nick Clegg could become a casualty of the Ukip advance. The Independent has learnt that Liberal Democrat activists have launched an online petition, #libdems4change, demanding a leadership contest so the party can install a new leader this summer.
In an open letter, the group tells Mr Clegg: “We consider it vital that at the 2015 general election the party should be led by someone who will receive a fair hearing about our achievements and ambitions for the future. It is clear to us that this person is not you, as the loss of so many of our hardworking councillors highlights.”
Mr Clegg insisted he would not quit as he blamed the party’s loss of more than 280 council seats on a “very strong anti-politics feeling”. But the pressure on him may grow if the party loses most of its 12 MEPs when the European election results are announced on Sunday night.
Mr Farage predicted that his party’s sweeping gains outside London in Thursday’s council elections in England will be matched by coming first in the Euro poll.
The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems all put their best gloss on the town hall results. But behind the scenes, they were frantically calculating the impact that the new “four-party” political landscape would have on next year’s general election. With results declared in 152 local authorities, the Tories had lost 201 seats and had lost control of 11 authorities. Labour gained 292 seats and six councils, while the Lib Dems lost two authorities and 284 seats. Ukip gained 155 seats.
A BBC projection indicated similar voting patterns would result in a hung parliament after the general election, with Ed Miliband just short of an overall majority. It gave Labour 31 per cent of the national vote, the Conservatives 29 per cent, Ukip 17 per cent, the Lib Dems 13 per cent and others 10 per cent. That would give Labour 322 seats (up 64), the Conservatives 261 (down 45) and the Lib Dems 37 (down 20).
Ukip’s share of the vote was below the 23 per cent it secured in last year’s county council elections in Tory heartlands – due partly to a disappointing performance in London. David Cameron rejected pressure from some Tory MPs for local pacts with Ukip.
Although Labour did well in London, gaining four authorities including the Tory flagship of Hammersmith and Fulham, Mr Miliband was criticised by some Labour MPs. Patrick Diamond, a Downing Street policy adviser under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, told The Independent: “Outside London, Labour isn’t doing well enough to be confident of an outright majority in 2015. Traditional Labour strongholds have fallen to Ukip. Southern England isn’t yet swinging to Labour in big enough numbers.
“Labour has to refocus and fast. The ‘cost of living crisis’ is a good line but not enough to sustain the party through a general election campaign in which economic credibility will be everything. The party needs to build its message around the commitment to economic competence, fiscal responsibility and a sustainable recovery which brings new jobs and new industries to every corner of the UK.”
Read more: Full local election results
Ukip inflicted damage to the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems alike as it picked up a succession of seats across England, performing strongly in many of the marginal seats that will decide the outcome next May. It scored stunning successes in Essex, gaining 11 seats in Basildon to end Tory control and gained five seats in Thurrock to eject Labour from power.
Mr Farage’s party deprived Labour of control in Great Yarmouth, where it won 10 seats, and North East Lincolnshire, where it landed seven. Ukip’s haul of six seats in Portsmouth ousted the Lib Dems. Mr Farage was also heartened by his party’s ability to garner support in northern areas such as Rotherham, Sheffield and Oldham.
Speaking in Basildon, Ukip’s leader predicted his party was heading towards a historic breakthrough in next year’s general election. He hinted he would contest a constituency in his home county of Kent. He said: “There are areas of the country where now we have got an imprint in local government. Under the first-past-the-post system we are serious players. We will see you at Westminster next year. The Ukip fox is in the Westminster henhouse.”
Following Sunday’s Euro results, Ukip will mount an attempt to capture the safe Tory seat of Newark in the 5 June parliamentary by-election. It will then seek to maintain momentum by shaking up its party structure to shed its “one-man band” image. Following embarrassing disclosures about the racist and homophobic attitudes of some of its council candidates, Ukip plans even tougher testing of people who will fight the general election.
Rotherham comes out for Ukip
In the 1980s politicians tended to look to Basildon as a pivotal constituency. Today, after Ukip’s electoral success, they might do better to focus on Rotherham, birthplace of the Chuckle Brothers.
Out of the 21 seats up for grabs on Labour’s Rotherham Council stronghold, ten of them were seized by Ukip. It was a stunning result that reverberated up and down the country, masterminded at the 3 Horseshoes pub in Wickersley where the party meets on the first Tuesday of each month.
“To take ten is unbelievable. But not only that, we've come so close in others losing by just a few votes,” said Craven Vines, who was returned as a Ukip councillor in the seat he first won last year in a by-election.
John Healey, the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne on the outskirts of Rotherham, said the result was an expression of the electorate’s anger at mainstream politicians.
“It's a message for all the political parties,” he said. “Wake up! People are angry. They are saying they aren't hearing enough of what they feel in what we are politicians are saying.”
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