Friday, May 03, 2013

A backlash in the shires

It has been a truly dreadful day for the Coalition with both the Conservatives and Lib Dems suffering significant losses.  Labour has clawed back some support from its nadir in 2009 but the clear winners are UKIP who have demonstrated a national appeal that is lacking among the mainstream parties.

UKIP did well because a) the stakes were low so it was a risk free protest, b) the Lib Dems no longer represent a useful protest vote and c) all three main parties have lost the trust of voters.  They are now in a position to go on to win the popular vote at next year's European elections and shake the political establishment to its core.

In the short term, UKIP's rise has three big political implications:
  1. It will encourage the three mainstream parties to appease the populist rhetoric of UKIP, although to date, Cameron's pledge of an EU referendum and Miliband's tougher stance on immigration have done little to stem the tide. 
  2. It will increase tensions within the Coalition as right wing Tories use UKIP's popularity to demand concessions from Cameron that are simply unpalatable for the Lib Dems.  Bizarrely, this might suit both coalition partners as it will give each greater freedom to publicly express their 'distinctiveness' from one another but it doesn't make for good Government.  Privately, many business leaders are already complaining about the paralysis at the heart of Government as coalition decision making kicks the more difficult issues into the long grass. 
  3. And, specifically for the development sector, it will increase central-local tensions within the Coalition parties - particularly within the Tories.  There is increasing anger and resentment within Tory ranks about planning reform.  The 'housing delivery' and '5 year land supply' focused NPPF seems a million miles away from the 'let the people decide' idealism of pre-2010 localism.  Nigel Farage picked up on public opposition to development in the campaign (although a bit too late to make a difference) promising referendum on large housing schemes.  UKIP now has an army of Councillors in place to challenge local plans and planning applications, changing the local dynamics of development in the shires.  With UKIP likely to pick up more Councillors over the next year through by-elections and defections, Tory Councillors will put more pressure on Cameron to rein in his pro-development Planning Minister, Nick Boles.
Local elections are generally over analysed by political commentators.  Once the articles have been written, and the TV punditry dries up, politics gets back to normal as the realisation seeps in that they were no more than the voters giving the national party of Government a slap on the cheek.  The question now is whether the UKIP threat will recede or whether yesterday's poll, and the Rise of the Kippers, marks a sea change in British politics.

A couple of years ago, the conventional political wisdom was that the Coalition (and the unpopularity of the Lib Dems) would return Britain to two party politics.  No longer.  The next election is now likely to be a four party affair.  And because of the inequities of the first past the post system, it is even possible that with the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP chasing the centre right/right vote, Labour could secure a comfortable majority with less than 30% of the popular vote.