UKIP wakeup for mainstream parties

2014-05-23 22:33
Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party  with a pint of beer in South Benfleet, England. (Lefteris Pitarakis, AP)

Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party with a pint of beer in South Benfleet, England. (Lefteris Pitarakis, AP)

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London - The first rumbles of a political "earthquake" promised by UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage were apparent on Friday, as initial results from local elections showed the party had won more than 100 seats and was likely to win double.

It follows unprecedented gains in local polls last year while the party is also predicted to win the European Parliament elections, which also took place on Thursday though the results will not be known until Sunday. UKIP, with its flagship policy of withdrawal from the European Union, now has its sights firmly set on next year's general election: "The UKIP fox is in the Westminster hen house," said Farage.

It is the first time a grassroots party has been able to make any serious challenge to the mainstream in a century. And while Britain's first-past-the-post system in general elections makes it difficult for new political parties to break into Westminster, all the main parties - the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - are worried.

Mainstream politicians were out of touch with voters, said Lib Dem minister Lynne Featherstone: "We are so guarded and so on message that we have lost our humanity." UKIP, on the other hand, had "managed to sound like human beings," she told the BBC. Her party, the Conservatives' coalition partners, took fright as they looked on track to lose around 300 councillors, possibly leaving them at their lowest overall numbers in three decades.

Leader Nick Clegg was forced to insist he would not quit, also blaming "a very strong anti-politics mood around" for his party's poor results. The knives were also out for Labour leader Ed Miliband, as the opposition party failed to make the most of an austerity-weary electorate angry at the government, and fears increased that it would be beaten into second place by UKIP in the European elections.

"The narrative around Ed Miliband, because it's the truth, is that he looks weird, sounds weird, is weird," the Times quoted a "senior Labour figure" as saying. Labour parliamentarian Graham Stringer condemned "both the presentation of our policies and the organization of the campaign", while his colleague David Lammy added: There's no doubt about it, UKIP are biting into parts of Labour's working-class vote."

But many of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives see UKIP's success as a sign that the promise of an EU referendum is key to winning back voters, despite opinion polls which show Europe is fairly low on the list of voters' concerns.

That is why the prime minister last year promised to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU, and hold a referendum on British membership of the bloc by 2017, if he is re-elected. After results began trickling in from local elections on Friday, some Conservatives launched fresh appeals for a pact with UKIP, suggesting the two parties run joint candidates next year to avoid splitting the centre-right vote.

"If David Cameron is as serious about an In/Out vote in 2017 as he says he is, and if Nigel Farage is as serious about Brexit as he claims, the two of them need to do a deal," wrote Conservative parliamentarian Douglas Carswell on his Daily Telegraph blog.

"If the alternative is Ed Miliband as Prime Minister, and no chance of a referendum, surely a pact is worth considering?" he added. The idea was firmly rejected by Cameron however: "We are the Conservative Party. We don't do pacts and deals. We'll be fighting all out for a win at the next election," he said.

Read more on:    ukip  |  david cameron  |  ed miliband  |  uk elections

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