Monday, May 26, 2014

You kip if you want to

The media are getting far too excited than is good for them. They have been in a frenzy over UKIP for months. Last week the local election results were reported as a surge of support for UKIP. Given the wall-to-wall coverage and stunts like Nick Clegg's amazing act of stupidity in agreeing to debate Farage on TV, it wouldn't be surprising if there had been. There is only one problem. UKIP gained 22% of the vote in 2013 and 17% in 2014. They had lost support. This should have given pause for thought, but it didn't. Commentators were saved by the European election results, with UKIP topping the polls with 27% of a very low turnout. The media breathed a sigh of relief and their big political story lives on, until they get bored with it that is.

That story isn't as simple as portrayed. European election results rarely correlate to votes in a general election and they hugely over-represent fringe parties. Think back to the last time. Then, it was the BNP that was the talk of the town. Two fascists were elected. Everyone got very excited. Nick Griffin was invited onto Newsnight. This year they were wiped out.

Analysis and reporting has also been lazy (at best) when looking at the figures. In the local elections UKIP lost votes but gained seats. To sustain the narrative, the share of the vote was ignored and the gain in seats highlighted. But the media was keen to paint the elections as a failure for Labour, so in their case they concentrated on share of the vote (the largest, but not enough to win a general election), not on the more than 300 seats gained. The problem of using seats to gauge popular support is that their distribution often reflects the crankiness of the electoral system, rather than share of the vote. Any meaningful comparison has to look at the share of the vote alone.

If you do this, then things look a lot more interesting. Britain seems to be becoming a much more multi-party polity. This will create all sorts of anomalies at the general election as first-past-the-post is poor at giving representation to smaller national parties. The electoral reform debate is not going away.

The second thing that is obvious is that Labour is recovering, pretty slowly, but improving all the time nevertheless. The only two parties that have gained are Labour and UKIP. It is just that nobody seems interested in talking about Labour. Also on the left, there is the continuing support for the Green Party. They are holding their place too.

The Liberal Democrats certainly should be worried, their support is melting away. UKIP is not helping the Conservatives either. They face the prospect of a divided right. The major parties are pretty resilient. I remember back to the times when the SDP was supposed to be the new force that would supersede Labour. They didn't but they did divide the left, leaving the way open for big Conservative majorities. UKIP will not replace the Tories, but they can lose them seats in marginal constituencies.

After the banking crisis and the politics of austerity, some polarisation is apparent. This time the main challenge is coming from an embittered right, itching to be nasty once more. UKIP is its latest indulgence. Certainly they represent an unlovely and authoritarian suburban insurgency, but a new force in British politics? Don't hold your breath.

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