In 2009 the Conservatives swept the board in the county council elections. Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire were gained from Labour. Labour would need to gain those back, to be where they were in 2005. Were they doing really well, they would gain somewhere like Northamptonshire – which they held until 2005.
For Conservatives the measure of success will be more complicated. Four years ago we gained Warwickshire from No Overall Control – so holding on there would be encouraging. So would holding on in Devon and Somerset – both counties gained from the Lib Dems last time.
The most interesting aspect of the elections will be how UKIP get on. This is what makes predictions this time round so hard. Over the past year they have successfully rebranded themselves: from only being interested in the EU, to being an all-purpose, anti-establishment protest party.
One defection they had recently illustrates the point. It was Cllr Chris Lagdon, of New Forest District Council, who previously sat as a Conservative. Cllr Lagdon disagrees with the council charging disabled Blue Badge holders to use Council car parks.
The Council has a very dull report about it with the focus on the Human Rights Act and an Equality Impact Assessment. It could well be that its policy is justified. If someone is disabled it does not mean they are poor. Does Cllr Lagdon believe that private car parks should be obliged to give free spaces for Blue Badge holders? Anyway I am allowing myself to be distracted. The point is that this is a protest and UKIP offers Cllr Lagdon a home to go to.
This role for the party means the assumption that it will overwhelmingly take votes from the Conservatives should be revised. Looking at it from a left / right spectrum doesn't help. UKIP's local election manifesto stresses immigration. When I canvass, I find that immigration is an issue more likely to be raised by Labour voters than Conservative ones. There are some other issues, of course. The manifesto supports lower Council Tax – but it also gives room to complain about cuts in services due to reduced funding for Town Halls.
In the foreword the Party leader Nigel Farage says:
The Government is taking money away from local councils, but continuing to give more and more away to the EU, and foreign aid.
The document says immigration is a threat "if we want to keep the National Health Service free."
There is a demand to "achieve consensus", a rallying call for "spending our money at home", with a complaint that "jobs, services and benefits are being cut." Three years ago I heard Mr Farage speak at a "Rally against Debt." I rather got the impression that he felt state spending was too high – not merely wrongly distributed. He didn't seem to think that EU and Overseas Aid spending should be cut to pay for increases in other areas.
Has Mr Farage lost his bottle? UKIP is now the Party for those who support spending cuts. Also for those who oppose spending cuts. Suits you, sir.
What of UKIP in power? Pity the residents of Ramsay in Huntingdonshire with their spendaholic UKIP town council resulting in them paying £1,529 Council Tax at Band D. Why, they might ask, is it £1,295.30 in Alwalton? £1,482.31 in Bythorn and Keyston? £1,475.44 in Denton and Caldecot? Even in Pidley-cum-Fenton it is £1,510.16.
As a Party offering all things to all men, UKIP are unpredictable. Maybe they will produce some upset results in counties that should be safe for the Conservatives. On the other hand they might disrupt what should be a a smooth march to power for Labour in counties such as Derbyshire – where UKIP are running a full slate of candidates and making bullish predictions.
I used to think UKIP were a threat to the Conservatives. It now appears a bit more complicated. The results from the county council elections will give us more of an idea of what is going on.