I've argued here before about the power of local government and the importance that council elections can have; in fact, I think they should be given a lot more influence, but that's not an argument for today. What does need to be reflected upon is the success in Thursday's council elections of Ukip, the anti-Europe, right-wing aggressors who siphoned off a large number of votes and seats, across the country, away from all three of the major Westminster parties.
There will be many who seek to disparage Ukip's success, because they don't like what the party represents. I myself don't like what the party represents. I think a new settlement with Europe would be much better for the UK than unconditional withdrawal and 1930s isolationism. I believe migration is vital to the health of the British economy and the survival of our public services. But I'm not going to deny that there are a large number of people who don't see things in those terms, and, by-and-large, those are the people who turned out yesterday to put their crosses by the UKIP candidates and give the big three a bit of a kicking. It's true to say that this was probably a protest vote. It's also true to say that a glut of low turnout, midterm, county council elections in Conservative heartlands are not representative of how the country really feels, or how they may vote when No. 10 is up for grabs in 2015. But we cannot deny that UKIP, at the moment, command a level of support unheard of for a fourth party since the SDP in the 1980s, and the way they use it, as well as the way the other parties respond to it, will help to shape the picture of British politics in the next couple of years.
How then, do the Tories, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats deal with the UKIP threat? The current strategy appears to be disparagement (0n the right) and denial (on the left), with a smidgeon of right-wing posturing on all sides. The Conservatives seek to delegitimise UKIP, while accepting some of their arguments on an EU referendum and making a lot of noise about immigration and welfare. Meanwhile, Labour and the Liberal Democrats try to talk the talk on immigration too, while secretly hoping that the Ukip vote will actually provide a split on the right, depriving the Tories of any hope of a majority - something which they're not overly keen to try to stop. This suits Farage nicely, as he knows he's not going to form a government any time soon. Earlier today he was talking of his true aims - a realignment of the right on his terms. He argues that the role of his party is to Ukip-ify the Conservatives, much as the SDP (he says) brought Labour to a more social-democratic, rather than socialist, position. Personally I don't follow his reasoning regarding Labour - it was four defeats in a row that turned the party into 'New Labour', not the SDP - but if that really is his aim, to adjust the nature of the Conservatives, then he's going to face problems as his newly elected councillors become representatives across the country.
Over the past few weeks and months, there's been a steady drip-drip of stories regarding the more unpalatable candidates that UKIP have to offer, and the rather nasty views they appear to hold. Furthermore, Ukip winning councillors means that the party's policies will be analysed more heavily, as they're going to be implemented to a greater extent than ever before. UKIP is now accountable to the voters for the first time - anyone arguing that the actions of the party's MEPs were widely observed and scrutinised is laughable - and this alters the way they are perceived. When they didn't hold office, what they thought and what they promised were largely irrelevant. What attracted voters to the party was not the policies - not for a lot of people - but the fact that they weren't any of the other parties. Now they hold power and influence. Now they will affect the lives of the people who elect them.
It has to be said that a large proportion of Ukip candidates in these elections hold views that ordinary people in the UK find contemptible, particularly on social issues. As the party finds itself with a greater share of power, it moves further into the spotlight. The onus now is not merely on Nigel Farage, the acceptable face of Edwardian, common sense, chocolate box England, but on the men and women who will be attempting to enact the policies of his party. It may well be that the main parties don't need to adapt their strategies for dealing with Ukip too severely following their local election victories. The main attraction to Ukip, for many voters, was their status as outsiders. Now they're inside the tent, as it were, it may well be that the Ukip leopard shows its true spots, performing a perfect act of self-sabotage.