c.2013 New York Times News Service
LONDON — The populist United Kingdom Independence Party made sweeping gains in local British elections and finished second in a parliamentary by-election, according to results announced Friday, jolting mainstream political parties, consolidating its position as an emerging political force and claiming a “sea change” in national life.
Once scorned by Prime Minister David Cameron as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” the party, which wants Britain to leave the European Union and strictly control immigration, ambushed its rivals, gaining about a quarter of the vote in a series of contests in different areas of the country Thursday.
“We have been abused by everybody, the entire establishment,” Nigel Farage, the Independence Party leader, told the BBC, “and now they are shocked and stunned that we are getting over 25 percent of the vote everywhere we stand across the country. This is a real sea change in British politics.”
Before the elections, a government minister, Kenneth Clarke, dismissed some members of the upstart party as “clowns” but, after pulling off his electoral upset, Farage had the last laugh in media interviews, parrying with the words, “Send in the clowns.”
The results of the elections were particularly alarming for Cameron’s Conservatives, who were pushed into third place in a by-election in South Shields, in northeastern England, to fill the seat vacated by former Foreign Secretary David Miliband. The opposition Labour Party retained the seat, but with a reduced majority.
Even before the latest victories, the Independence Party had propelled British politics to the right and prompted Cameron to harden his policy stance against immigration and the EU.
The results suggested that the Independence Party might yet have a larger impact and pose the biggest challenge to the grip of established parties since the 1980s, when a now-defunct centrist party appeared.
In recent years, populist parties have exploited the mood of disenchantment among voters in several countries across Europe, from the Netherlands to Greece, and one, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, applauded the outcome of Britain’s elections as sending an “unmistakable signal.”
Critics have questioned the staying power of the Independence Party, citing what they see as a flimsy policy agenda and a reliance on Farage, its raffish, eloquent leader. Although its members sit on the European Parliament, it still has no representatives in Britain’s national Parliament.
But with results announced in 32 of the 34 election districts that were voting, the Independence Party had won more than 130 seats and was averaging 25 percent of the vote in the elections where it fielded candidates. That gives it a solid platform for new elections next year to the European Parliament, in which it could finish first among Britain’s parties.
Significantly, it made gains outside its normal strongholds in the southeast.
Grant Shapps, a leading Conservative, conceded that it “has not been a great night for any of the mainstream parties.”
Cameron, when asked Friday about his “fruitcakes” comment about the party — made in 2006, before he was prime minister — adopted a more respectful tone, saying it was no good insulting a party that had won many votes.
Farage warned that his supporters were not going away.
“The people that vote for us are rejecting the establishment,” he said, castigating the “metropolitan elite” as failing to respond to what he depicted as Britons’ desire to retrieve British sovereignty from the European Union. “It’s about getting our country back.”
The results, he said, were a vote against the established political parties, which “look the same and sound the same and are made up of people who basically have never had a job in the real world.”
The Independence Party’s success in winning over disaffected Conservative voters is likely to put more pressure on Cameron at a time when the British economy has only just escaped a triple-dip recession. A continued surge in support for the Independence Party could deprive the Conservatives of the seats they need to win in the next general elections, due in 2015.
Cameron has already promised to renegotiate Britain’s relations with the European Union, then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the bloc.
He is now facing pressure from euro-skeptic lawmakers to introduce legislation immediately that would schedule the referendum to follow the next general election.
That would send a strong signal that the Conservatives are really committed to holding the vote, these skeptics argue.
The main opposition Labour Party had a reasonable but patchy performance in the elections, but they were another setback for the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Britain’s coalition government. Until the party joined the government, it had been a traditional repository of protest votes, many of which now seem to be switching to the Independence Party.
With most of the national votes counted, the BBC projected Labour in the lead with 29 percent, the Conservatives in second place with 25 percent, the Independence Party in third place with 23 percent of votes and the Liberal Democrats fourth with 14 percent.
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The results could also have economic repercussions, analysts said.
“The surge in support for the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns to take the United Kingdom out of the EU, will work against the efforts of Chancellor George Osborne to attract investment to the U.K.,” Rob Wood, chief economist for Britain at Berenberg Bank in London, wrote in an analysis.
“The strength of the anti-EU vote slightly raises the uncertainty about the U.K.’s prospects of remaining in the EU after 2017, which can’t be a good thing for companies thinking about investing in the Britain,” he added.
But the political ramifications seem more jarring. A leading political analyst, John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland, said the Independence Party had far exceeded pollsters’ expectations, and its message — particularly its call for tighter immigration controls — seemed to have resonated with voters at a time when the British economy was “still in the sick bay.”
“This is frankly a phenomenal performance,” he told the BBC. “We are going to mark this as a historic set of election results.”