Center for Strategic Communication

By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent

3 May 2010. This week the UK demonstrated one old political maxim – all politics is local — and one new one — all spin is national.   

In yesterday’s local elections Conservatives and Liberal Democrats suffered significant losses.

Now for the spin.

Conservatives, who lost most, “got the message.”  And the message? The Conservatives are right, of course. The electorate want what Conservatives are doing. The electorate are just “impatient” for it. Never mind the losses, the government just needs to do a better job messaging. Time to put UKIP under “scrutiny.”    

Pundits had a field day. The only thing better than egg on a politician’s face is a story of dramatic political change.  

Their “big story” was UKIP’s performance 

UKIP did well and better than predicted.  It certainly is a story that should be told. UKIP’s share averaged 25 percent, a substantial increase from last year’s 7% in national polls or the 13% reported in the Sun poll this morning. 

More importantly, there are now four Stallions in the corral with the mares. 

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, claims a “C-change” in UK politics.  Many pundits agree. Others say it could be the start of something big. Maybe they’ll prove right. But maybe it’s overcompensation for not taking UKIP seriously enough in the past. 

I agree most with Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon. Gibbon said the one thing clear to him is there’s increased potential for a hung Parliament.  

But there was another story

The progressive Labour and Green Parties also made gains. In fact, at 291, Labour picked up more than twice as many seats as UKIP.  Green also gained.  But the story commentators told was Labour disappointing expectations by some measure or another.  

BBC further turned speculation into news. BBC reported their projection of what the results would have been nationally if it had been a national election, which it wasn’t, and if  UKIP’s share remained constant, which is dubious, as if this projection was somehow news.  BBC ignored Chuka Umunna’s point that most of yesterday’s races were in previously Conservative jurisdictions.  How does one turn a gain twice UKIPs in previously Conservative jurisdictions into a Labour disappointment? If UKIP’s victory was a potential C-change, it seems more than odd that results nearly twice as large only disappointed.  

Why is this important? 

This is important because politcos and the electorate now consider the election’s political and policy implications.  

Commentators who only the day before failed to predict the outcome spent the entire day today telling the public what those implications are.  Some argued Parties will have to shift to the Right. Others argued that at the very least Parties will have to address UKIP’s focal issues differently.  Many questioned whether one could consider Labour a true contender to take power in 2015.  While Labour’s success rose throughout the day the story line remained essentially unchanged.   


It seems premature to me to come to such conclusions.  

First, the focus on UKIP’s performance glosses over the more than double Labour and Green Party gains. If the country is pulling to the right how did Labour and the Green Party increase their councillors so significantly in largely Conservative jurisdictions? Does not compute.

Second, turn out has been low across the country. Hard to read partisan much less policy conclusions into what that turnout in a local election predicts for a national general election.  

Third, it isn’t clear that even UKIP’s success represents a victory for right wing ideology. While it is clear the electorate aren’t happy with things as they are, the ideological signals of even the UKIP vote are mixed. 

Some compare UKIP to the US Tea Party. Its leadership certainly presents political challenges to the Conservative Party similar to those the Tea Party presents the GOP. Leadership’s ideology may indeed be as broadly libertarian as the Tea Party’s judging from policies that made it into UKIP’s hurried Manifesto. 

But not all who support UKIP are motivated by an ideological hostility to government.

There are other factors. Some say UKIP members distrust “suits.”  Many do, but that isn’t UKIP’s only point either. 

Some say all UKIP really is about is disliking immigrants and the EU. Immigration and sovereignty are UKIP’s big talking points. But the reasons why include more than jingoism and “I’m not a racist but” prejudice.

Analysis suggests UKIP pulls from Conservatives at seven times the rate UKIP pulls from Labour. But UKIP does demonstrably pull from Labour.

Nigel Farage himself commented UKIP represents people from across the political spectrum who’re disaffected with established “neo liberal” globalism and feel unheard concerning what they believe are the impacts on them of it. UKIP pulls workers who’ve lost jobs to deindustrialization, the impacts of globalized free trade and — they believe — immigration.  Anecdotal and testimonial evidence suggests immigration is an issue not because “they’re different” but primarily because UKIP supporters see immigrants taking British jobs and services for which British workers pay. One can quote official statistics at them but they believe what they see in their communities.  In an era of scarce jobs, competition for British jobs is a particularly emotive issue.  Once upon a time it was for Unions and Labour.   

In the weeks ahead, UKIP will have to translate rebellion against policies into policies that work and survive scrutiny without losing membership. Due to the diversity of its membership, that may well prove to be a significant and largely underreported challenge. 

I think today’s instant analyses were premature. I’m particularly skeptical the results imply Conservatives and Labour must make “retail offerings” tailored to a perceived electoral shift to the Right. The clearest lesson just may be, there is no political cadre or ideology on the horizon that currently inspires the trust of an electoral majority. Alliances may be the precondition to governing — if indeed alliances are possible.