The results of the local elections have been fascinating.
It was reasonable to expect that Ukip would do well in the European Parliament ballot (which is yet to be counted), but the fact that so many people chose to vote for the party at council level, too, suggests that the revolt is about more than just our relationship with Brussels. It represents a cry of rage against politics-as-usual, a cry that the main parties would be wise to listen to.
Once, Ukip was seen purely as a party of the shires, of disaffected Tories. But the phenomenon has broadened. It performed well in several Conservative strongholds, contributing to the loss of key councils such as Maidstone, Southend-on-Sea, Basildon and Brentwood.
But Ukip also polled more than 30 percent in parts of Labour’s northern enclaves, as well as contributing to the fall of the party in Thurrock, an area that happens to be number two on Labour’s target list for next year’s general election. The Lib Dems did as badly as expected and face possible wipeout in the European poll.
In the long run, the biggest loser was surely Ed Miliband. Yes, he picked up many seats and emerged top of the poll, but he did not do nearly as well as he should for the leader of an Opposition only one year away from a general election.
The embarrassment of failing to recognise the name of the leader of Swindon’s Labour Party may have contributed to the fact that the Tories held this crucial council. But policy undid him, too. Mr Miliband has tried to play Robin Hood in the past two years, offering voters everything from controlled rents to fixed energy prices. That such naked populism has not helped him indicates that people have long memories of his party’s time in office and that they are unconvinced by the rebranding. Rather than protesting against a Tory government by voting to the Left of it, they have, unusually, voted to the Right of it. Mr Miliband must now regret his decision effectively to rule out a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, a position out of touch with the nation’s mood.
The message for David Cameron is more nuanced. While he did badly, he did not do nearly as badly as he might have done and the opinion polls continue to show that the general election is neck and neck. Improvement in the economy has given his chances of re-election momentum. Also, many voters have registered anger about areas of policy that the Tories ought to be able to score points on, particularly Britain’s membership of the EU and vast illegal immigration.
Politically, Mr Miliband cannot respond to these classically conservative concerns, but Mr Cameron certainly can. If he can show that he is determined to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, and he needs to give us a better sense of what this will look like, then Ukip voters may respond warmly. Similarly, if he can convince the public that the Government is determined to manage our borders better, to be honest about the numbers involved and to ensure that Britain’s economy and services are capable of dealing with the logistical challenge of EU migration, then, again, he will find new sources of support.
Crucially, Mr Cameron and all the main party leaders must show humility. The people have spoken and the message is that they are tired of the politics of spin, of political correctness shutting down debate or of the feeling that Britain cedes too much sovereignty to Europe. Even if the economy would improve, resentment about past policy mistakes lingers. Mr Cameron was right to say that he shares the “frustration” with the slow pace of change. The choice of language is canny, because he has to convince voters that he feels their anguish and is determined to take the right action to improve things faster.
If these results are any indication, the party could do well enough in the general election to deny Mr Cameron a second term. A period of rebellion is cathartic. But a Labour-led government would prove infinitely more frustrating than a Tory one, but with everything said, Ukip’s rise to power is probably the best thing that could happen to Britain in the last 100 years.
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