Is Ukip’s political earthquake more of a storm in a teacup?

This Blog originally appeared on Guardian Public Leaders

It’s looking like a bit of a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full election for pretty much everyone.

For Labour it was very much a game of two halves: they lost a lot of votes to

UKIP in the North – a phenomena that may prove significant in the general election next year. They did not make the sort of early progress they would have hoped in seats gained and will have been very disappointed to go backwards in Swindon.

But then in the early hours the London results started coming in and things began looking up for them: Merton, Croydon, and Redbridge were all targets but very far from assured. Hammersmith and Fulham is a real coup.

The conservatives will be disappointed that urban Essex seems to have abandoned them for UKIP, which will be especially painful in Mr Pickles’ back yard, but they may on balance think that things could have been worse.

For the Liberal Democrats, disappointment at losing Kingston to the conservatives will be tempered (perhaps outweighed) by relief at keeping Sutton and pleasure at shutting UKIP out completely in Eastleigh. Having set an expectation for complete annihilation, arguably the only way was up.

But the big winners, that everyone is talking about, are UKIP of course. But here too things are not as clear cut as they appear. Certainly, they’ve taken a huge share of the popular vote and, significantly, have demonstrated that they can take a massive chunk out of Labour’s traditional northern vote. In many places they’ve pushed the Conservatives into third place and of course they’ve had those Essex triumphs. That’s why it’s being written up as a ‘political earthquake’ and a ‘new era of four party politics’.

Looked at another way, however, it looks like a less striking advance. Taken as a story about number of seats won, it seems less significant. UKIP are making huge relative gains in their number of seats but the total number they end up with will still be far less than the other parties. Taken as a story about political control, it is less significant still. UKIP do not control any local authorities (although at time of writing there are rumours about a coalition deal in Castle Point).

In a first past the post system, UKIP cannot convert their vote share into power. One can’t help suspecting UKIP supporters mainly voted against AV in the referendum a couple of year’s back. Perhaps they regret it now?

So if the test we apply is will any councils will be doing things differently on Monday morning as a result of the UKIP surge the answer is: no.

On the ground things will not be different; just as they haven’t been since last year when we saw the same headlines about UKIP’s arrival on the national scene.

What this should remind us, is that these elections are not actually about national politics, they’re about local power, about who governs local areas and how.

That’s a much more complex and varied set of outcomes. It doesn’t fit so easily into a simple media narrative; but it is, in the end both more important and more interesting.

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