Britain goes to the polls today in local and European elections that may bring a weekend of misery for the leaders of all three main parties.
As well as a European Parliament poll, the only time the whole country votes outside a general election, much of England is electing local council members. In the European vote, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are forecast to come third in a national contest for the first time since women got the vote in 1918. And his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are polling as low as fifth, behind the Green Party.
Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is meanwhile battling for first place with the U.K. Independence Party. If Labour is overtaken by UKIP, it will be the first time the main party in opposition hasn’t won the European election since 1984.
“The collective temptation to deliver a massive shock to the political elite is too tempting -- what’s the downside for voters?” Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling company ComRes Ltd., said in a telephone interview. “People are fed up with the political establishment and the narrow choice they offer.”
UKIP has won support by attacking the European Union, immigration, and mainstream politics. Its leader, Nigel Farage, spent much of the final week of the campaign denying that he’s a racist, after he remarked that he would be concerned if Romanians moved in next door.
Two days ago, the party’s planned “Carnival of Colour” in south London to show off candidates from ethnic minorities descended into chaos when Farage failed to show up, the Jamaican steel band that was booked to perform went home early, and the local organizer described the area as a “dump.”
A YouGov Plc poll published in The Sun newspaper today put UKIP first in European voting intentions on 27 percent, followed by Labour on 26 percent and the Tories on 22 percent, the Greens on 10 percent and the Liberal Democrats on 9 percent. That would translate into 22 EU Parliament seats each for UKIP and Labour, 16 for the Tories, four for the Greens and three for the Liberal Democrats. YouGov sampled 6,124 adults on May 20 and 21 and didn’t specify a margin of error.
The results from the European election won’t be released until 10 p.m. London time on May 25, to allow the rest of the EU to finish voting.
The local elections are likely to offer an indicator of the result, starting in the early hours of tomorrow. More than 4,000 seats in 161 councils across England and Northern Ireland are up for election. Nearly half the seats are in London.
If the opinion polls are correct, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats stands to lose nearly all their 11 lawmakers in the European Parliament they got elected in 2009, a further blow to a party whose support has fallen by more than half since it entered the coalition with Cameron in 2010.
Clegg used the campaign to pit himself directly against Farage, arguing that only the Liberal Democrats support European Union membership. He even held two broadcast debates with the UKIP leader, and was deemed by the public to have lost them both. A poor result in Europe will emphasize the struggle ahead of the party in next year’s general election.
Cameron argued this week that it will be possible for the Conservatives to win back the support of many UKIP supporters before 2015. He blamed UKIP’s rise on voters being “frustrated.”
Though the Tories are lagging in opinion polls of European voting intention, they were ahead of Labour in two surveys last week of how voters would cast their ballots at a general election. Yesterday’s YouGov poll had the Tories three points behind Labour on that score, trailing by 33 percent to 36 percent, with UKIP on 13 percent, as the economy has improved and inflation has slowed relative to wage rises.
Tony Travers, who studies local elections at the London School of Economics, estimated last week that the Conservatives may lose as many as 200 council seats and the Liberal Democrats as many as 350, given the state of the opinion polls. Labour is set to gain 400 to 500 seats, with UKIP adding as many as 75.
According to Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University, the European vote is one in which voters vent their frustration with the government and won’t predict the result at the 2015 general election.
“If UKIP come first, the result is messy and a break with the established order,” he said. “But it is not clear that Farage can translate that into anything meaningful next year. Britain has a very discerning electorate who regard local and European elections as an opportunity to let off steam. I don’t think the electorate care who goes to Brussels or even really about town halls any more.”