POLITICS

Mehdi's Morning Memo: The 'Clowns' Strike Back

03/05/2013 08:22 BST | Updated 03/05/2013 08:25 BST
Getty Images
SOUTH SHIELDS, ENGLAND - MAY 02: A UKIP posted is displayed in a house window on the day that voters head to the polls on May 2, 2013 in South Shields, England. The by-election was triggered after the former foreign secretary David Miliband announced that he was resigning from the House of commons in order to leave Britain and head up the New York based International Rescue Committee humanitarian organisation. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The one thing you need to know on Friday 3 May 2013...

THE 'CLOWNS' STRIKE BACK

They were mocked and dismissed as "waifs", "strays", "fruitcakes", "closet racists" and "clowns". Their candidates kept getting caught making anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic remarks online. Their policies were panned as extreme, incoherent and uncosted.

Last night, however, the UK Independence Party brushed off the criticisms and controversies and gave the three main parties their biggest scare in living memory, coming second in a parliamentary by-election (ahead of the Tories and the Lib Dems) and taking one in four of the votes cast in the local council elections.

In the South Shields by-election, prompted by David Miliband's resignation from parliament, a seat so safe they normally weigh the Labour votes rather than count them, the Labour candidate Emma Lewell-Buck's majority fell from 11,109 to 6,505. Labour's 50.5% share of the vote was the party's lowest in South Shields since 1083.The Tories were pushed into third by their right-wing rivals while the humiliated Lib Dems came seventh, behind the BNP and two independent candidates, and lost their deposit in the process. (Silver lining: the Lib Dems didn't come eighth, as they did in last year's Rotherham by-election.)

In the local council elections, reports the BBC, Ukip is currently averaging an astonishing 26% of the vote in the wards where it is standing - compared to the 11 or 12% it tends to poll nationally! - and has won 42 seats so far. (The Tories, however, have managed to hold on their council strongholds in Essex, Dorset, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Somerset - but they lost Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire to no 'overall control'.)

Leading psephologist John Curtice, from Strathclyde University, has just been on the Today programme and said the "phenomenal" performance by Ukip "far exceeded our expectations" of how the party might do. Thanks to the Ukip surge, he added, these are a "very historic and very unique" set of local election results.

Indeed they are. And Nigel Farage is probably right to say that the results undermine the conventional wisdom "that Ukip voters are all retired half colonels living on the edge of Salisbury Plain".

But let's be clear: Farage is not in a position to tell his activists to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" (then again, as we later discovered, nor was David Steel in 1981). As the BBC's Nick Robinson notes on his blog, Ukip didn't win the by-election, hasn't won the local elections, probably won't win any councils and almost certainly won't win any parliamentary seats come 2015. And as Nick Clegg pointed out earlier in the week, Ukip crushed Labour and the Lib Dems in the 2009 Euro elections but, less than a year later, were nowhere to be seen in the 2010 general election.

So it isn't illegitimate to continue to describe Ukip as a 'protest party' - especially given where we are, mid-term. The only thing is, they've proved to be a damn good protest party and have really, really spooked Cameron's Conservatives.

Note 1: Check out the www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/politics for the latest results, twists and turns from the local elections as the day progresses and further results come in.

Note 2: Tonight I'll be interviewing Lord Adair Turner, former chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and ex-head of the CBI, on the future of capitalism, the danger of inequality and the row over austerity at the Oxford Union at 7pm. We'll also be joined by economists Ann Pettifor and Costas Lapavistas and venture capitalist Jon Moulton. If you'd like free tickets, email debates@aljazeera.net.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@JananGanesh Protest party thrives in mid-term elections. I know, I'm staggered too.

@Kevin_Maguire Psephologists need maths degrees with 4 parties in 2 party electoral system. Swingometers twist like the bloody Arcelor tower

@rafaelbehr MT @allToryMPsonTwitter if Labour don't win every council seat in the entire world it is a massive humiliation for Ed Miliband.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Philip Collins, writing in the Times, says: "Panic is pointless. UKIP’s not a serious party."

Iain Martin, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Wanted: a leader who can unite the warring Tory tribes."

Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, says: "We know spending on the arts makes big money for Britain. So why cut it?"

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol