Comment: Ukip takes its eye off the prize

By Paul Smyth

A year ago Ukip was being swept along by a national tide of popularity beyond its control and the party's astonishing success in the 2013 local elections catapulted it to a position it had not expected to achieve. 

Overnight, a new battleground opened up for Ukip.  Although its 'heavy guns' and political experience remained with its cohort of elected representatives at the EU, the vanguard of the party was now in domestic politics where it had secured over 140 local authority seats. 

Very quickly, Ukip had to accelerate the evolution it was undergoing to establish itself as a credible mainstream party in British politics, an ongoing process of enlargement and professionalisation that is not without hazard, difficulties or ridicule. 

This essential reshaping of the party may seem to be damaged by the repeated unveiling of members who espouse unusual views, but their exposure is a necessary part of Ukip's transformation into a mature political force which can attract widespread public support. 

That Ukip related gaffes are seen to have a whittling effect might partly explain why a succession of faux pas appear to have had little impact on Ukip's popularity, but as the party grows in stature such unorthodoxy and amateurism may become more damaging, even if less common. 

Unlike a year ago, Ukip can now exert much greater influence over its fortunes and its progress toward having MPs at Westminster.  While a by-election or defection by a sitting MP might provide the quickest route to that goal, it must think carefully about the planned political opportunities available in 2014, namely the two major elections scheduled for May 22nd.

Given the emphasis politicians, journalists and political commentators have hitherto placed on European elections that day, the public may not realise that on May 22nd voters in England will also elect some 4,000 local government officials.  This is some 1,600 more than those selected in the May 2013 elections, but curiously the 2014 local government elections are rarely mentioned in political discussions.

The virtual neglect of this year's local elections in political thinking and dialogue is significant, for if Ukip does not give them due priority it may limit the party's potential success in the 2015 general election. 

To become a true force in domestic British politics it is imperative Ukip's centre of gravity shifts from Brussels to the UK.  The local government elections offer 4,000 opportunities to promote that crucial strategic adjustment and without this fundamental realignment Ukip will struggle to do more than influence British politics from outside of the tent.  It might lobby hard but it will remain an observer with little actual political power.

Both elections on May 22nd are critical for Ukip and success in both is vital to the party's continued development.  But when resources and time are limited there may be occasion to choose which is more important, especially if the hitherto EU-based locus of the party appears counter-intuitive to Ukip's strategic development. 

There are understandable reasons why Ukip might give pre-eminence to the EU election.  UKIP's MEP candidates are the best the party has fielded, products of a careful vetting and selection process which included psychosomatic testing and a members ballot.  They typify the professionalism Ukip must embrace to be taken seriously in British politics and the election they are entering will naturally attract emphasis. 

The political significance of the EU election to Ukip has also been amplified by Nigel Farage suggesting it should be seen as a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.  The party's anticipated success in the election would therefore add weight to demands for an early plebiscite to settle that issue.

Furthermore, if predictions Ukip will win most of the 70-plus British MEP seats available in May prove correct, the party will have increased its share of the vote, scored a victory over other parties and added momentum to its growing popularity among the electorate.            

However, the real significance of the May 22nd elections rests firmly on the affect they will have on the party's prospects in the general election.  The litmus test is therefore what would have more impact on Ukip's campaign in 2015: winning the EU election but performing badly in English local elections, or the reverse? 

It seems highly unlikely that Ukip will perform 'badly' in the European election, although Conservative tacticians could cultivate political disappointment by exaggerating Ukip's chances in order to inflate voter expectations; that way if Ukip did not dominate the EU ballot it would be vulnerable for significant criticism. 

In reality, Ukip will probably enjoy a high degree of success in the EU election which broadly meets popular and media expectations, but whether it comes first or second in the overall ballot will not have a substantive impact on how people will vote for their next MP a year later.  Alternatively, what happens in England on May 22nd has the realistic potential to do so. 

The local government elections will encompass 68 urban boroughs running up the spine of England.  For the first time since Ukip enjoyed unprecedented national popularity, millions of voters in London, the Midlands and northern England will have the option to vote for a Ukip candidate.  This is an unparalleled opportunity for Ukip to demonstrate the depth and breadth of its domestic political appeal, yet this historic moment is in danger of being lost beneath the attention heaped upon the EU election.

Too many politicians and commentators have accepted the premise Ukip's popularity is dependent on protesting Conservatives, and the shire-based elections in May 2013 reinforced that misconception.  But this May the electorates in deprived urban districts and Labour heartlands will provide Ukip with the chance to debunk that notion only a year before the general election. 

The election of large numbers of Ukip councillors into local government beyond the shires would herald a sea-change in the currently accepted political discourse.  If Ukip can repeat the groundbreaking success it had in May 2013 to the same scale, existing estimates of its political chances in the general election would become invalid. The argument Ukip has no political experience would be further weakened. And the accusation that a vote for Ukip is a vote for Labour would be refuted.  Most importantly, the public would see that a vote for Ukip can bring about change. 

This year affords Ukip excellent opportunities to advance toward Westminster.  By-elections in the autumn and winter would be unexpected bonuses but the planned elections in May provide the key stepping stones to greater success.  This year, voting will take place in about twice the number of boroughs balloted in 2013, testing how much electoral activity local Ukip branches can actually support – another reason why success in the local government elections is an important barometer of how Ukip might fare in 2015.    

Both the European and local government ballots in May are critical to Ukip's development and progress.  Thus far, the EU election appears to dominate political thinking and discussions, but there is still time for the immense value of a major success in the local government elections to be acknowledged and realised.  Ultimately, the path to Westminster winds through the United Kingdom, not Belgium.

Paul Smyth is a Ukip councillor on Norfolk County Council.  For almost 25 years he served as an officer in the Royal Air Force, and later worked at the Royal United Service Institute (Rusi) on Whitehall.  He joined Ukip in the run up to the May 2013 elections and is also owner of R3i Consulting Ltd. Follow him on Twitter.

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