Saturday, 24 May 2014

The British journalist and the UKIP victory that looked terribly like a defeat

Not enough has been said about the herd mentality of political commentators.

The story of the British local elections on Thursday was trailed way in advance: it was going to be a huge triumph for the far right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-EU and closet anti-gay party, UKIP.

So as the results started to come in on Thursday evening and during the day on Friday, we had a continuous flow of commentary about the “earthquake” achieved by UKIP. The “fox”, we were told, was now well and truly in the “Westminster hencoop”.

I heard the hype, but couldn’t make it tally with the actual results.

The final figures showed that Labour had gained control of six more councils, taking its total to 82. They did that by winning an additional 338 seats around the country.

The Tories had lost control of eleven councils, leaving them with precisely half as many as Labou: 41. They lost 231 seats.

The Liberal Democrats’ meltdown continued. They lost control of two more councils leaving them with just six, and they lost a staggering further 307 seats.

And UKIP? They added 161 seats to the total of just two they already held amongst those contested on Thursday. That was the only spectacular aspect of their achievement. They controlled no councils on Wednesday, they controlled no councils on Friday. They made half the gains achieved by Labour, and took a total of 163 seats – behind not just Labour (2101) but also the Conservatives (1359) and even the Liberal Democrats (427).

The BBC does an “equivalent share of vote projection” for this kind of election, to work out what it would correspond to in terms of a full national election (not every area has local elections every year – for instance, we in Luton didn’t this time round). On that basis, UKIP achieved 17%, well below its poll standing – and worse still, 6% down on last year.

This is what they call 'victory'?
If this is what victory looks like, one shudders at the idea of defeat.

The reality is that there was only one victor of the local elections: Labour. It was well short of the kind of victory it was looking for – it needed 500 gains to feel it was on course to win outright in the general election next year – but it was a victory all the same. UKIP emerged on the stage, and turned our system into one with four parties not three, but as clearly the fourth party, well-beaten into last place.

There’s still a chance of a sting in the tail, however. We had European elections on the same day as the locals. It’s possible that some voters chose UKIP for the Euros and someone else for their local council – perhaps feeling that the Euros don’t count, and they don’t want UKIP anywhere near power where it matters. The European votes don’t get counted until Sunday, at the same time as the rest of Europe, and we may face a nasty upswing in UKIP votes then.

For now, though, based on the local elections only, there’s some satisfaction in seeing UKIP achieve far less than its ugly boasting suggested. And yet the commentariat was united on Friday in describing what had happened as a breakthrough for UKIP. It was as though no one wanted to be the first to break the consensus, and say something different from what all the other journalists were saying. See what I mean about herd mentality?

It reminded of that brilliant piece of doggerel:

You cannot hope To bribe nor twist, Thank God, The British journalist.

But when you see What the man will do, Unbribed, There’s no occasion to.

Fortunately, British journalism does acquit itself better after a good night’s sleep, and the Guardian was a lot more sensible this morning.

It’s headline was: “Ed Miliband told: raise your game”.

Now that makes sense. Miliband had a lousy week, among many lousy weeks, appearing on TV unbriefed, and generally running a lacklustre campaign in which he made the mistake of not taking on UKIP. Indeed, the paper went on:

“Labour tops vote in local polls but campaign criticised as UKIP makes a mark.”

Ed Miliband
If he really wants something to smile about, it's time to change gear
Yes, that sums it up. Nothing like enough from Labour. And a mark by UKIP, but no more than a mark.

Good to see British journalism redeem itself a little. And UKIP put back into its box, at least for now. Fingers crossed for Sunday’s count.

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