When Grant Shapps – Tory party chairman, aka ‘Michael Green’,’ Sebastian Fox’, and a veteran of Advertising Standards Authority investigations into ‘misleading claims’ to promote his internet marketing firm – states that he and his party ‘respects’ people who chose to vote UKIP in the local elections on 2nd May, I begin to feel rather queasy. There are many people I respect in my life – some of whom I know extremely well, and some of whose reputation, behaviours or opinions I admire. However, I would not say I respect the majority of people I know or know of; and I don’t tend to respect blocs of people. It’s like saying, I respect people who buy the Sun; or who can eat a Vindaloo curry without sweating. If I was to respect people en masse – say people who voluntarily devote their lives to helping the poor, or caring for the sick – it is really a euphemism for admiring or endorsing what they do. If Shapps respects people en masse, I suspect it is because he wants something from them. So what does the apparently impressive UKIP results in the local elections tell us about the state of English politics, and about those who purport to ‘respect’ them?
The first thing is to unpick the actual results. UKIP won 147 (i.e. just over 6%) of 2362 council seats contested, averaging around 25% of the vote in the wards in which they fielded candidates. Given an estimated turnout of 31%, this amounts to just over 7.5% (or one in thirteen) of eligible voters. This is impressive – especially were it from a standing start – but is hardly the ‘landslide’ that characterised much of the tory press coverage of the results.
I take a particular interest in Lincolnshire, as a resident, and with my business based in Stamford – at the far south of the county. Lincolnshire was hailed as one of the triumphs for UKIP – with the party winning 16 of 77 seats and coming second in the election with 24.3% of the vote. Stamford was recently designated as ‘the best place to live in Britain’ by the Sunday Times – for its ‘ great houses, excellent schools, transport links, beautiful surroundings, and thriving communities’. I cannot say I particularly ‘respect’ the Sunday Times, but as a marking of an idealised, superficial and ‘quintessential middle England’, I suspect their ranking is pretty accurate – Stamford is lovely. It is also UKIP-free, with the party not even bothering to contest the town’s two seats.
In fact, fourteen of UKIP’s sixteen Lincolnshire successes were in the Fens. The Fens are a distinctive and unique area of England – rural, relatively poor and inaccessible, and have been characterised by huge influxes of mainly East European agricultural workers over the past decade. Boston (where UKIP won five of the seven county council seats) has seen the fourteenth largest rate of population growth in England from 2001 to 2011 censuses (15.8%) after decades of static or declining trends. Much of this increase is accounted for by the influx of EU immigrants – Portuguese and East European. In 2001, the population of the borough was 55,700 of whom 97% were White British. By 2011, population had risen to 64,637 of whom only 83.9% are White British and 8,100 (12.5%) are ‘White Other’. Boston is actually still more ‘White British’ than the England and Wales average (80.5%), but nevertheless, the pace of change in this set of communities has been dramatic.
Boston is renowned for its idiosyncratic voting behaviour, having, for instance, elected 25 ‘Boston Bypass Independents’ to their 32 seat district council in 2007 (and even retaining four, and electing two ‘English democrats’, after the group imploded by 2011). The town was the scene of anti-Portuguese rioting in 2006 when England was knocked out of the world cup by Portugal. More recently five Lithuanians died in an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery in 2011. Nevertheless, even in this hotbed of anti-immigration angst, UKIP victories were based on between 35%-45% of votes on turnout from 23%-31%.
One suspects similar (if place distinctive) narratives can be constructed for Skegness and East Lindsey (seven UKIP seats) and Spalding (two). And the Fens case study also counters the tory orthodoxy of whipping up fears of East Europeans coming to the UK because of our generous benefits system. I find it hard to believe that even the most desperate migrants (and particularly Romanian or Bulgarian next year), given the breadth of experience offered by the UK, would chose to descend en masse for a ‘benefits holiday’ in the Fens.
UKIP did pick up one seat each in Gainsborough and Lincoln – more urban territory where one would expect to have seen a labour resurgence. In Gainsborough, UKIP captured ‘Gainsborough Hill’ from the LibDems with an uplift of only 10% in their performance in 2009, and on a turnout of 17%. In ‘Hartsholme’, Lincoln, the seat was won from the conservatives – but again the UKIP uplift was only 10% compared to 2009, with Conservatives and LibDems losing more than 20% each over the same period. Even in tory Hartsholme, the Labour vote was up 32% (i.e. three times the UKIP rise), and overall, Labour took seven of the nine Lincoln seats.
The ‘rise of UKIP’ in Lincolnshire can be inversely correlated with the ‘fall of place’, and, in this case, with the inability of a conservative political elite to offer hope, a positive vision, and a convincing delivery narrative to address the causes of that decline. It is why UKIP’s victories were in Skegness and not in Stamford; why Labour gained five seats in Lincoln compared to UKIP’s single success. That a significant, if modest, minority of voters choose to scapegoat immigrants, the EU, and benefits scroungers – factually incorrectly – with their community’s decline is immensely sad. It is hugely worrying, and exasperating. But it is not really deserving of ‘respect’.
All of which brings us back to Mr Shapps/Green/Fox or whatever persona he is choosing to adopt this week. If Shapps ‘respects’ the choices of UKIP voters, is it because he knows them intimately, shares their values and perspectives, admires their behaviour and endeavours? Is it because he wants their votes at the 2015 general election? Either way, this tells us a lot about him and the party he chairs.
The Tory embrace of the UKIP narrative and flattery of their voters is probably the easiest strategy by which they can seek to retain and enhance their national power at the 2015 elections. At best, it might deliver an absolute majority; under a ‘plan B’, it allows the possibility of ditching the LibDems in favour of a Con-UKIP coalition.
The 2013 local government elections have clarified the conservative/progressive battle lines for 2015, and the Tory/UKIP embrace is setting out the conservative’s stall. Can progressive voices respond effectively? In my local context, can the Labour alternative in Lincoln, genuinely trump the UKIP despair in the fens? And, in particular, nationally, can we energise and enthuse a significant proportion of the 69% of voters who couldn’t be bothered on May 2nd? Now, achieving that will genuinely be worthy of respect…