Results from the U.K. local elections presented Prime Minister David Cameron and his Labour opponent, Ed Miliband, with the prospect that neither is on course for outright victory at next year’s general election.
A projection based on the results of the May 22 elections in more than 4,000 local-council seats in England and Northern Ireland gave Labour 31 percent of the national vote, Cameron’s Conservatives 29 percent, the U.K. Independence Party 17 percent and the Liberal Democrats 13 percent.
The elections, which coincided with voting for the European Parliament, were a test of support for Cameron’s coalition government a year before the next general election. The results prompted Labour lawmakers to question Miliband’s ability to take back power in 2015. Still, Cameron too acknowledged the need to win back voters, many of whom have defected to UKIP, which seeks withdrawal from the European Union and a reduction in immigration.
“When people come to vote in the general election, they’re voting for the government, on bread-and-butter issues, which UKIP isn’t strong on,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, said in an interview. “But if the Conservatives can’t get the UKIP vote down a long way, their chances of forming a majority or even being the largest party are very slim.”
Gains and Losses
Compared with the 2013 local elections, when different seats were at stake, UKIP’s vote share was down 6 percentage points, Labour was up 2 points and the Tories up 4 points. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners, were down 1 point. Governing parties usually fare poorly in British local elections, as voters use the polls to punish them.
The Conservatives lost more than 200 seats and Labour gained more than 290, with results in from most of the 161 councils across England. The districts being fought over this year were last contested in general four years ago.
Labour gained control of Cambridge in eastern England, while failing to win in other target districts including Thurrock in Essex and Swindon in the west. In London, though, Labour took control of Merton, Croydon, Harrow, Hammersmith and Fulham and Redbridge.
“We’ve got to work harder,” Cameron told reporters. “We’ve got to really deliver on issues that are frustrating people and frustrating me like welfare reform, immigration and making sure that people really benefit from this recovery.”
UKIP gained more than 150 seats. It won a similar number last year, with just over half as many up for election. The party was hurt by a poor showing in London, where it made few gains.
With counting continuing, the Tories lost control of 11 councils, including Hammersmith and Fulham. UKIP made gains in towns including Basildon and Southend in Essex as well as Labour strongholds such as Rotherham in northern England.
“They’ll say it’s a protest,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage told reporters in Thurrock, where voters turned to his party. “It looks like a fairly permanent protest.”
One Labour lawmaker, Graham Stringer, told the BBC the party should have done better. He criticized its campaign and the performance of Miliband, describing an interview in which the party leader struggled to estimate his weekly shopping bill as “unforgivably unprofessional.” Miliband made the cost of living a key campaign theme.
Miliband defended the campaign and said his party will seek to win back voters who switched to UKIP before the general election in May next year.
“We’ve had discontent building for decades about the way the country is run and the way our economy works, and people feeling the country just doesn’t work for them,” he told Sky News television. “What you’re seeing in some parts of the country is people turning to UKIP as an expression of that discontent and that desire for change.” He said he’s “determined that over the next year we persuade them that we can change their lives for the better.”
Farage, who may opt to contest a seat in Kent, southeast England, in the general election, said the results provide a springboard for his party as it prepares for next year’s vote.
“It’s a very good night for UKIP,” Farage told reporters. “We’re serious players. What we will do over the course of this summer is choose our target constituencies and throw the kitchen sink at them.”
According to Rob Ford, co-author of “Revolt on the Right,” a study of UKIP’s rise, the party is now placed to mount serious challenges in next year’s election.
“In some places they can now claim to be the opposition,” he said in an interview. “The chances they can win parliamentary seats look a lot, lot stronger.”
The Liberal Democrats lost more than 280 local-council seats, including in districts they hope to hold in the general election. The Conservatives won the London borough of Kingston from them in a contest affected by the jailing of the Liberal Democrat council leader on child-pornography charges.
“There is a very strong mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and that’s reflected in the results for all mainstream parties, including the Liberal Democrats,” Clegg told Sky. “All of us realized it was going to be tough.”
The results from the European election won’t be released until 10 p.m. London time tomorrow, to allow the rest of the EU to finish voting.
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