Eight weeks on from the 2014 European and local elections, the election results may be out of the headlines but parties are left with much to ponder as to what it means for their chances at the general election next May. UKIP’s extraordinary performance saw them secure 24 of the 73 European Parliament seats (up from 13 in 2009), gain an additional 1.85 million European votes relative to 2009, and win a record number of seats on local councils. We consider what UKIP’s success might mean for the general election.

Based on previous experience, we may question whether UKIP will be able to sustain this support in May 2015. Ever since they began gaining ground in European elections in the late 1990s, whatever successes UKIP have enjoyed have largely failed to carry over into the following general election. At the last three general elections, the UKIP vote was on average 11% points lower than at the previous European Parliament election:

UKIP vote share in European and General Elections, 1999-2014

UKIP vote share

However, there are a number of factors that indicate things may be different this time around, not least the results from the local elections.

The headline results from the local elections show that seats won by UKIP represented only 3.8% of those up for election and their National Equivalent Vote share (a measure that takes local election results and scales them up to predict how they might translate to a national election) actually fell from 22% to 18% between 2013 and 2014. But national vote shares can conceal the uneven distribution of vote shares across areas. In a First Past the Post system, this distribution can prove more important than the total number of votes received in helping smaller parties secure local seats.

UKIP’s vote share in certain areas has seen a boost in recent years and in some places has reached more than double its national share. In the 2014 elections, there were three local authorities in which UKIP won the most seats: Basildon, Great Yarmouth and Rotherham (11, 10 and 10 seats respectively). The chart shows how this success has come about over the course of the last four local elections.

Share of the vote of the top three parties in local elections in Rotherham, Basildon and Great Yarmouth, 2010-2014

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Although its share of the vote increased by an average of 15.7 percent between 2010 and 2012 in these areas, this was still not enough to win UKIP a single seat on any of the three councils. Yet by maintaining this momentum into 2014, the party was able to secure 63% of seats up for election in Basildon, Rotherham and Great Yarmouth.

A key point to note is that these victories did not just come at the expense of any one party’s votes. While polls have shown that UKIP voters were more likely to have switched from the Conservatives, Labour are not immune to losing voters too as pointed out by the Fabian society. In practice, distilling and extracting “the UKIP effect” in a multi-party democracy is not easy – something akin to a 3D game of chess with multiple players. Yet analysis of the seats won by UKIP in 2014 does reveal some of the differing effects on other parties.

The chart below shows the average fall in vote share in 2014 for the party who previously held the seat and the average rise in the UKIP vote share. Thus we get an indication both of the magnitude of the shift to UKIP but also who loses out as a result. In the case of seats won from Labour, UKIP’s average increase in vote share (31% points) is substantially larger than Labour’s average loss (6% points). Indeed in 10 of the 45 seats lost by Labour to UKIP, Labour actually gained in terms of vote share; UKIP’s victory thus came mainly because of the net transfer of votes from other parties.

Vote share change in seats won by UKIP in 2014 Local Elections relative to last time the same seat was up for election

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These findings do not look too bad for Labour; if UKIP successes come at the expense of their Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents, then surely Labour stand to be the main beneficiaries? Only up to a point: while there are many different scenarios that may emerge, two (more extreme) cases illustrate how UKIP’s impact on Labour is far from uniform. In Windhill and Wrose in Bradford, the sum of the loss in vote share experienced by the Lib Dems (-25.1%), the Conservatives (-2.2%) and the Greens (-1.8%), was nearly exactly equal to that gained by UKIP (+28.6%), while Labour’s share also increased (+0.5%). In this case, any votes lost by Labour to UKIP appear to be more than offset by Labour gains from elsewhere, resulting in little movement in the net change in their vote share.

Local election vote shares in Windhill and Wrose (Bradford), 2010 and 2014

Windhill & Wrose (Bradford)
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In contrast, Fryerns in Basildon represented a different outcome. Whilst the net change for Labour was again only slight – a loss of 2% points of their share of the vote between 2010 and 2014 (a vote share that still would have won them the seat in 2010) – in this case it was not enough to hold off the UKIP surge and they lost the seat.

Local election vote shares in Fryerns (Basildon), 2010 and 2014

Fryerns (Basildon)
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Of course, people’s voting habits differ between local and general elections and council seats won in the current year offer no guarantee of Westminster seats the next year. However, a strong UKIP performance in certain constituencies could be enough to ensure that in certain cases, someone who would have otherwise come second was able to win the seat because a decline in the incumbent’s vote share coincided with a rise in the UKIP vote share.

The 2014 local elections offered many examples of these kinds of tips of balance – from Conservative to Lib Dem in Brockhurst, Gosport, from Lib Dem to Labour in Crookes, Sheffield and from Labour to Conservative in Lowton East, Wigan. The direction of change and the areas in which it occurs may differ, but the UKIP impact remains a common feature.

The latest polls indicate that this pattern might well continue into the general election, particularly in Conservative-Labour marginal seats. Thus even if UKIP wins no seats of its own in 2015, it could still play a role in shaping the next government.

Author: Steven Ayres