John Curtice reviews the results from the recent elections, including Ukip's unprecedented bid to establish fourth-party credentials, and the challenges facing the two traditional major parties of Westminster politics.

The European elections held on 22 May together with the coincident local elections held in much of urban England on the same day, including in all of London, were the last major test of the parties' electoral popularity before the 2015 general election. The clues they provide about the standing of the parties are thus of more than a little interest. This is especially so given that during the last 18 months we have been witnessing, in the form of Ukip, the most substantial and sustained independent fourth party challenge in postwar English politics.

Not that reading the clues provided by either set of elections is easy. Voters do not necessarily vote in local elections in the same way they would in a parliamentary election.[1] The complex cycle of local elections in England creates many a potential interpretative pitfall.

Meanwhile, one of the persistent features of European parliament elections, not just in the UK but throughout the EU, is that voters are more willing to vote for 'minor' parties, including not least those who stand on an anti-EU ticket.[2] Consequently, to have any realistic prospect of discerning the clues they offer correctly, we need to focus on how the local election results compare with equivalent previous rounds of local election results and, equally, how the European election outcome compares with that of previous European elections.

Local elections
A summary of the ward-by-ward local election results collected by the BBC in a sample of 63 districts (nearly 40 per cent of the 161 councils in which elections were held) is shown in table 1, including some key measures of the change in party performance in two previous rounds of local elections. The first such round comprises the local elections in 2010 – this was the occasion on which most of the seats up for grabs this year were last contested and they took place on the same day as the last general election. The second comparator is provided by the 2012 local elections, the last occasion on which – London excepted – elections were previously held in the set of districts in which elections were held in 2014.

Table 1

Note: In the case of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the average change in vote share is based on all wards fought by all three parties on both occasions. In the case of Ukip and the Greens, the figure is based on those wards fought by the party in 2010/12 (as appropriate) and 2014. Note that no elections were held in London in 2012.
Source: BBC News website.

Three points stand out. First, Ukip once again registered its presence, winning over one-fifth of the vote in the wards that they fought (albeit these represented only two-thirds of the wards in our sample). That compares with an average of just over 3 per cent in the wards that the party also contested in 2010 (which comprised less than a third of the seats they fought this time) and the 9 per cent the party achieved in the wards it also fought in 2012 (which took place just as the first signs of Ukip's surge were beginning to appear in the polls). Despite the relatively geographically even spread of its vote, its 2014 performance was enough to give the party 161 new council seats, many of them in wards that four years ago had been won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, not just the Conservatives. It represented not far short of a doubling of the size of the party's local government base.

At 22 per cent, the party's average vote share in the wards that it contested was a little lower than the average 24 per cent of the vote that it secured in the local elections in 2013. However, the difference was more or less wholly accounted for by a much weaker performance in London, where the party's average share of the vote in the (much smaller proportion of) wards it fought was just 10 per cent. In any event, most of the places that had local elections this year (the more urban half of England) did not do so last year (when it was mostly rural England that voted) so those claiming that Ukip's 2014 performance represents a setback as compared with last year have failed to appreciate that this was an apples-and-pears comparison. Although it might be argued, given the experience of the coincident local and European elections in 2004 and 2009, that the party's local election performance this year may well have been boosted by the fact that European elections were taking place at the same time, the key poin
t to take away from the results is that, in line with the message of the polls, the party's performance in last year's local elections was no mere flash in the pan.[3]

Second, Labour's performance again raised questions about the strength of its electoral appeal. At just over 5 per cent, the swing since 2010 to the party from the Conservatives would, if repeated nationwide in a general election, leave the party just three points ahead in the popular vote. More seriously, the party's vote fell back on average by nearly eight points compared with 2012, a far bigger drop than that suffered by any other party over the same period. Rather than demonstrating further progress in restoring the party's reputation in the eyes of the electorate, the results confirmed the message of the polls that the party is considerably less popular now than it was two years ago. Labour has tried to comfort itself with the claim that it performed well in London, but its headline gains in the capital had more to do with the fact that, uniquely, all of the council seats were up for grabs in the region – rather than, as was typically the case elsewhere, just one in three. At 5.6 per cent, the swing from Conservative to Labour since 2010, in the 11 London boroughs where the BBC collected results at least, was much the same as elsewhere.

Third, the Liberal Democrats, for whom local elections are traditionally their forte, received the hammering that has become the norm since it entered into the Coalition government in 2010, losing nearly half the vote it secured four years ago. In itself that was no surprise, but the party might have hoped to avoid losing ground on two years ago, results that in themselves had been bad enough.[4] The further fall means the results represented the party's worst local election performance since its formation in 1989. In what has now become a standard refrain in the face of adversity, the party argued that the results showed the party's vote could hold up better in places where they had an incumbent MP. This was true in some places, such as Bradford West and Birmingham Yardley, but on average the drop in the Lib-Dem vote in wards located in the constituency of an incumbent Lib-Dem MP was, at 13 points, much the same as elsewhere.

European elections
The results of the European election, summarised in Table 2, largely confirmed these three key messages.

Long before its current surge, Ukip had already managed to win 16–17 per cent in the relatively propitious climate of a European election. This time, the party blitzed that previous best by winning 27 per cent and coming top of the poll. Its relative weakness in the capital (17 per cent) – and indeed, Scotland (10 per cent) – was again evident, a pattern that is not simply a reflection of the capital's younger, relatively well educated and ethnically diverse population (all of which groups tend to be less inclined to support Ukip). At the same time, however, it became clear that the party has developed an area of relative strength on or near the east coast of England from Boston (52 per cent) down to Thanet (46 per cent). It would not be surprising if the party focuses much of its general election efforts there.

Table 2

* Election held using single member plurality electoral system; subsequent elections under a regional party list system.
Sources: Rallings and Thrasher 2012,[5] BBC News website.

Labour, meanwhile, only emerged narrowly ahead of the Conservatives. It was the first time since 1984 that the principal opposition party at Westminster had failed to top the poll in a Euro-election. Perhaps most telling was the fact that the party's vote was as much as 19 points down on what it achieved in 1994 when it last fought the European elections as an opposition (and went on three years later to win the general election). The Conservative vote, in contrast, was down only four points on 1994. Meanwhile, although the polls suggest Ukip is winning over more ex-Conservatives than ex-Labour supporters, an above-average increase in Ukip support since 2009 depressed Labour's performance, on average, just as much as it did that of the Conservatives. Labour is evidently far from immune from the Ukip challenge.

In contrast to local elections, Liberal Democrats usually struggle to do well in European elections. Indeed, shortly after its foundation the party won just 5.9 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European elections. Its performance this year was only slightly better than that, leaving the party with just one MEP to its name. Much like the Liberals of old, the party was left looking not only like a peripheral party but also a party of the periphery: its three best performances were in Orkney (35 per cent), Shetland (34 per cent) – and Gibraltar (67 per cent)!

Three similar patterns; three conclusions. First, Ukip continues to represent the most serious postwar challenge to the established order of English party politics. Outside London at least, the party more or less repeated the unprecedented advance of a year ago. Maintaining that support for another 12 months will be more of a challenge, as voters are invited to consider who they would like to govern them for the next five years. Still, none of the Westminster parties can afford to presume that the support they have lost to Ukip will be won back easily.

Second, Labour's performance was not one to give much confidence that the party is on course to win the 2015 general election. Even leaving aside the challenge of Ukip, the party has clearly lost ground relative to the Conservatives through the middle stages of this parliament, leaving its performance far short of what, hitherto at least, we have come to expect from an opposition party that has subsequently proven to be on course for victory.[6]

Third, despite all their attempts to differentiate themselves from their senior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats are now in as much electoral trouble as they have been at any point in this parliament. Over the last four years, the party has seen its local government base seriously depleted and now its European one has all but disappeared. It is far from clear how it will reverse its fortunes in the 12 months it has left. Its hopes of avoiding another disaster seem to rest heavily on the popularity of its incumbent MPs, but the evidence of this year's elections suggests this is likely to prove a patchy and uncertain dividend.

So is David Cameron sitting pretty? Not quite. According to the polls at least, the Conservatives still have the most reason to be concerned about the Ukip surge – no less than seven in 10 of those 2010 Tory voters who have defected from the party have chosen Ukip as their destination. And then there is the real fly in the Conservative ointment – the failure to have secured a redrawing of the parliamentary constituency boundaries, thereby leaving the party at a serious disadvantage in its attempt to secure an overall parliamentary majority. In truth, irrespective of whatever party they represent, any MP who is looking forward to the next 12 months with confidence is probably a fool.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture.

1. Rallings C and Thrasher M (2003) 'Explaining Split Ticket Voting in the 1979 and 1997 General and Local Elections in England', Political Studies 51(3): 558–572. ^back
2. Reif K and Schmitt H (1980) 'Nine second-order elections: a conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results', European Journal of Political Research, 8(1): 3–44. ^back
3. Curtice J (2013) 'Never to be forgotten: the 2013 English local elections', Juncture 20 (1): 62–70. ^back
4. Hope C (2012) 'Local elections: Liberal Democrats "might not be able to fight 2015 election as independent force"', Telegraph, 4 May 2014. ^back
5. Rallings C and Thrasher M (2012) British Electoral Facts 1832–2012, London: Biteback. ^back
6. Curtice J (2013) 'Labour's mid-term melancholy: Why poll position isn't everything', Juncture 20(2): 155–158. ^back