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Another new leader for local government's fifth force

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

New Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, whose victory was announced this morning, has said his aim is to “replace the Labour party and make Ukip the patriotic voice of working people”.

Labour has debated for years how to stop being ‘out of touch’. The government’s of Blair and Brown were, for instance, sometimes perceived to be oblivious to the impact of East European immigration on local communities or the difficulty first-time buyers faced getting on the housing ladder. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, was seen as a policy wonk. All of this contributed to the rise of Ukip. Then came Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr Nuttall believes the Labour leader, who yesterday attracted ridicule for his praise of late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, has done little towards re-embracing the working people. Indeed, its loony-left repels them. The new Ukip number one, who is an MEP for the north west of England, says his priorities were centred on “immigration, crime, defence, foreign aid, ensuring that British people are put to the top of the queue in the job market”.

Meanwhile, the tide of popular isolationism, which many in local government claim is due to the imbalance of economic growth across the country, rose high enough to trigger a vote for Brexit earlier this year. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor (or immediate predecessor but two, depending on how one interprets the Ukip leadership) Nigel Farage was the godfather of Brexit and the party clearly aims to build on his success.

But how likely is it that Ukip – a party with just one MP, Douglas Carswell – could pose a serious threat to the more established parties in local government?

Ukip may have been a party of ridicule but it is making slow and steady gains.

Following the 2016 local elections, Ukip ranked fourth in terms of councillor numbers across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with 396 overall (for comparison, the Conservatives had 8,496, Labour 6,980, the Lib Dems 2,051 and the SNP 409).

LGC’s exclusive analysis from Colin Rallings & Michael Thrasher of the English council election results in 2016 showed that Ukip increased its vote share by seven points that May on the the same point in the election cycle four years ago, but only increased its number of seats by 30 overall. In fact, the Lib Dems edged ahead of Ukip for the first time since 2012 in terms of their vote share.

However, Ukip focused its energies on taking seats in the Welsh and London assemblies at that point, in which it was successful, gaining seven seats in the former and two on the latter.

The only example of Ukip controlling a council is Thanet DC. Its history prior to Ukip taking control in 2015 was marked with in-fighting, which perhaps gave Ukip the opportunity it needed to gain ground. Former leader Clive Hart (Lab), for instance, quit his post in 2014 with a 6,000-word Facebook rant about the conduct of fellow councillors. Current leader Chris Wells has said his tactic for maintaining power is to keep to a steady course; he told LGC in 2015 that his ambition is to “run the most boring district council that the LGC doesn’t wish to report on over the next four years in the way they have over the last four years”. Ukip being Ukip, its Thanet party group has since been hit by defections which resulted in in losing control of the council, only to regain it following a couple of by-elections.

Elsewhere, Ukip councillors are making the most of the influence they have. In Southend-on-Sea BC, for example, the Conservatives formed a pact with Ukip councillors to keep control the council, but only managed it by acceding to Ukip members’ demands that Southend hands in its notice to leave the Local Government Association.

Were Mr Nuttall to take his plan to charm disillusioned northern Labour voters, combine it with the efforts that won it assembly seats and an increase in overall vote share, and ride the wave of post-referendum populism, it is possible that the party will see further success in years to come.

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