Nigel Hastilow: Who’s standing after ‘political earthquake’?
As the local elections loom next week, Nigel Hastilow looks at the parties jostling for position and considers just where our votes may fall
Cast your mind back four years to the days when leaving the European Union was easy and David Cameron and Nick Clegg were running the country.
At that time, the name on everybody’s lips was Nigel Farage, the politician from nowhere whose minor pressure group had become a major force.
The UK Independence Party swept all before it in the European elections of 2014 winning more seats than any other party and polling 26.6 per cent of the vote.
At the same time as UKIP was strolling into Brussels flicking V-for-Victory signs at all those foreigners, it was doing pretty well in the local government elections as well.
Four years earlier, back in 2010, a mere nine people were elected as UKIP councillors across the whole country. In the Year of Farage, that total soared to 163 and the party took votes as well as seats from all three major parties.
In those days Labour was led by Ed Miliband, who now seems such a moderate and reasonable Socialist, and polled best in the council elections with 31 per cent of the vote to UKIP’s 17 per cent.
Of course UKIP’s success terrified David Cameron who feared he would lose the 2015 General Election if he didn’t offer an EU referendum.
So he promised us the Brexit vote and, much to his complacent astonishment, he duly lost and was swept from the political landscape.
We now have Theresa May fighting to secure our departure from the EU and Jeremy Corbyn plotting to keep us inside the customs union, which more or less means staying in the EU but without any say in what happens.
Given the turmoil over Europe, it could be argued there is as much need for a UK Independence Party today as there was four years ago.
But that fails to take into account the abject failure of UKIP to move on after the referendum or position itself as a credible party.
At last year’s General Election, UKIP under Paul Nuttall, one of several odd bods who have led the party since Nigel Farage decided to spend more time with his mate Donald Trump, polled a paltry 1.8 per cent of the vote.
There is no reason to suppose that the party will do any better in next week’s local elections.
The real question is who will benefit if the UKIP vote collapses? Given that many traditional Labour voters went for the Brexit party, there’s every chance Jeremy Corbyn will gain as a result.
On the other hand, disaffected Conservatives also switched to UKIP so they could well balance out the extra support Labour gets.
It’s clear that in some wards, only a few votes one way or another could decide which party ends up controlling the council.
Who runs Dudley, Walsall and Cannock Chase may well be determined by where the UKIP votes fall. That does assume, though, that everybody else votes the same way in 2018 as they did in 2014 and there is plenty of evidence that they won’t.
Though some people will vote for one party come hell or high water, more and more are prepared to lend their support for one election at a time.
And their decisions will be based as much on whether the bins are emptied on time, potholes in the roads are being repaired and the schools are functioning efficiently as on whether or not Britain should take part in bombing raids on Syria.
If Labour does well next Thursday, it will be interpreted as a sign that a Corbyn-led party is on its way into Downing Street.
That may be misleading but, at a time when Theresa May’s hold on power is looking increasingly tenuous, given the looming crisis over the EU customs union, it will give Labour renewed vigour.
It might even frighten the Tories into some kind of unity. Back in 2014, Nigel Farage hailed UKIP’s success as a ‘political earthquake’. And he was right because it led directly to the Brexit referendum and, in theory, to our departure from the EU in less than 12 months’ time.
It may be Mrs May’s negotiations will never achieve the complete separation from the EU that most people voted for in the referendum.
But until we know that for certain, there isn’t much point in pushing at an open door by voting for a party dedicated to achieving something which it has supposedly won already.
The question is whether ex-Ukippers will bother to vote at all and, if so, whether they choose a Tory party led by a Remainer who wants Brexit or a Labour party led by a Brexiteer who wants to remain.