Local Elections 2013: Why did UKIP do so well?

With 23% on the PNS, and 147 seats, UKIP did shockingly well in this year’s local elections. Why?

There’s lots of good analysis of UKIP voters, especially by Rob Ford. Factors leading people to vote UKIP include anti-government and anti-main party protest voting, euroscepticism, and anti-immigrant sentiment. There is a lot of public support for the policies that UKIP advocate and emphasise. Polls tell us that there is a clear majority for reducing immigration and close to half the public would vote to leave the EU.

But public concern on these issues has been relatively long standing, and the main reasons for protest voting were there last year as well this year. True, the economic doldrums have continued for yet another year and faith in the abilities of either the Conservatives or Labour to restore economic health has declined since last year, but not dramatically so. So why did UKIP do so much better this year than in any previous local elections?

One very important reason is that the party fielded more candidates. They contested three quarters of seats this year compared with just a third of seats last year and about a quarter in 2009, when the seats up yesterday were last contested. Looking at the 1550+ BBC keywards, in seats they fought both this year and in 2009, UKIP averaged 27%, up 11 points since 2009. In places they fought for the first time this year, they averaged 24%. So, roughly speaking, we can say that if they had only managed to match their 2009 performance but with 2013 candidature levels they would have averaged 15% instead of the 25% they actually averaged. Roughly 44% of the total UKIP vote tally this year is due to improved performance, but 37% is due to fielding more candidates at 2009 levels of support. Put another way just under half (45%) of the UKIP increase in overall vote share since 2009 is due to fielding more candidates.

Admittedly this does raise the issue of how UKIP managed to attract so many more candidates. This could be partly due to increased overall popularity, but I’m not best placed to speculate.

So that leaves the question of why UKIP were up 11 points on 2009 in the places they did fight last time. Also in last year’s local elections UKIP averaged just 12% in the 311 BBC keywards they contested, 13 points lower than this year’s average. This is the same average rise as in the (albeit only 41) places were the county council division boundaries this year are the same as the ward boundaries for last year’s elections.

Polls suggest that UKIP support has risen steadily since the general election from 3% in 2010 to 11.5% now, with a 4% rise since last year. A 4 point rise in the polls for UKIP provides some explanation for a 13 point increase in local election performance, but still leaves a lot to explain.

The local election campaign over the last month probably has much to do with it. UKIP seem to have run a much more effective campaign with many more activists who should help mobilise more voters. But the UKIP share and change in share of the vote is negatively not positively correlated with turnout across the BBC keywards.

Maybe more important received a lot more media coverage than ever before; and the debate over immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, which became the focus of the UKIP campaign, surely helped them. Protest over wind farms helped mobilise support (but in a limited number of places) but disgruntlement with the planned HS2 route probably didn’t make much difference.

What should the main the main parties do in response? Bonnie Meguid (University of Rochester) tells us that the worst strategy to deal with single-issue or niche parties (like the extreme right and greens) is to try to argue against them. It only makes more people realise they agree with the niche party and not the mainstream parties. As Tim Bale observed after the Eastleigh by-election, by focusing on UKIP issues without addressing them satisfactorily, “rather than shooting UKIP’s fox, Cameron has fed it.” Better, according the Meguid’s analysis, to ignore niche parties or steal their policies (if you can stomach them).

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Rob Ford, Jon Mellon and John Curtice for comments.

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