LONDON – The anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party has broken through as a major political force in local elections that delivered a bloody nose to Britain’s ruling coalition.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Saturday that his Euro-skeptic party could no longer be dismissed as a protest movement, as it averaged almost one-quarter of the vote in elections for local authorities in England.
“This is a real sea change in British politics,” said Farage, a charismatic member of the European Parliament.
The results represented one of the strongest showings by a nontraditional party since World War II, with the gains underscoring the rise of populist and nationalist parties across Europe.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives appeared hardest hit by UKIP’s surge, and he acknowledged the success of a party he once dismissed as full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”
“I think there are major lessons for the major political parties,” Cameron said in his Oxfordshire constituency, where the Conservatives lost control of the local council.
He said voters clearly wanted the government “to do even more to work for hardworking people to sort out the issues they care about,” citing the economy, immigration and welfare.
The BBC put the projected national vote share for UKIP at 23 percent. It secured more than 130 council seats in Thursday’s voting. The Conservatives had a 25 percent share of the vote, losing more than 300 seats and ceding control of 10 councils, although they still control 18.
The opposition Labour Party, which has been leading opinion polls amid a government austerity drive and stagnating economy, led the field with 29 percent and won modest gains of around 290 seats.
The Conservatives’ junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were pushed by UKIP into fourth place with 14 percent.
UKIP still does not have a single member of Parliament and will struggle to translate its local success into victory in the 2015 general election.
But the results are a major breakthrough and bode well for its prospects in European Parliament elections next year.
The coalition parties had braced for losses in the midterm elections, which are often used by voters to punish ruling parties.
But the results were sobering for the government, particularly in the parliamentary by-election in South Shields, northeast England, which took place at the same time. Labour held the seat, vacated by former Foreign Minister David Miliband, although its majority was almost halved. UKIP came second with 24 percent of the vote.
Tony Travers, director of the government department at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “It is a traditional midterm protest vote and it’s found its lightning conductor through UKIP. However, there is a more generalized protest . . . against mainstream elite politics.”
He suggested UKIP’s appeal — and the local election results — bear echoes of the tea party movement in the U.S., complete with cries of “we need to get our country back.”
UKIP, once driven by the sole aim of withdrawing Britain from the European Union, has picked up support from socially conservative voters, many of them older people disillusioned by the mainstream parties, particularly with their failure to control immigration.
Cameron sought this past week to regain support by indicating that he may bring forward legislation on holding a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. However, Rob Ford, an expert on UKIP at the University of Manchester, warned: “UKIP success is today being driven by domestic issues, especially immigration, not the EU. Offering a tougher line on Europe is not the solution.”