2009 was the last time we had elections for the council seats going to the polls on May 2nd. The elections are mainly for county councils although there are also some unitary authorities being contested. In 2009 UKIP performance in the council elections was derisory. The Euro Elections were held the same day and UKIP came in second place with 16.5% of the vote – ahead of Labour and the Lib Dems. Yet UKIP only got seven councillors elected – in most places they didn't even run candidates.
Now the UKIP brand has evolved. It is no longer regarded as a single issue party. By last year it had a pitch as a Party for traditional right wing Conservatives fed up with David Cameron. UKIP would talk about grammar schools, wind farms, tax cuts, political correctness, immigration… They only had nine councillors elected, but played an important role in splitting off votes from the Conservatives and thus letting Labour take power in Plymouth and Thurrock. Also Great Yarmouth.
The brand has since evolved even further. UKIP is now more of an all purpose protest party rather than just a place for disillusioned Conservatives looking for a home to go to. Given the evidence of council by-elections, Parliamentary by-elections, and opinion polls it is difficult to imagine what could fairly be described as a "bad" result for UKIP this year. It has already notched up a huge advance by putting up candidates in 73.5% of seats. That is only just behind the Lib Dems.
Given the high expectations I think that fewer than, say, 50 gains would be a disappointing result for them. Gains on that scales would probably be enough for them to overtake the Green Party in their number of councillors. Gains between 50 and 100 would be quite satisfactory but probably in line with the party's expectations. Gains of over 100 would mean we could dust down cliches about "breaking the mould". Certainly gains on that scale could be regarded by the Party as a good result.
A very good result would be gains of over 200. If we see this, combined with huge losses for the Lib Dems, we could see more UKIP councillors elected than Lib Dems. If that happened then the cliches would be fair. We will be in a four party system.
Where will UKIP make their gains? Although they only won a handful of seats last time that still will give us a clue. It is much easier to build up support when you have one or two councillors than when you have none at all.
In Conservative areas the councils I would regard as most likely to see UKIP making gains are those where the Council tax is being put up – Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey. In Cambridgeshire UKIP already has a councillor. What are the messages for persuading people to vote Conservative rather than UKIP? One message is that the Council Tax has been frozen (cut in Lincolnshire). That message is not available to us in Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, or Surrey. Another message is: "Don't let Labour in." In Surrey? That message lacks traction.
What about traditional Labour territory? In Staffordshire UKIP won four seats last time; in Nottinghamshire they won one. Intriguingly these are both councils that the Conservatives gained from Labour last time. A key test for Labour is to win them back. But with UKIP as the joker in the pack? Will that just make Labour's task easier? Perhaps not.
Consider UKIP targets in Staffordshire. There have been boundary changes which is a complication. But if we look at where they came close last time, their top five targets include a couple of Lib Dem seats and a Labour seat. The sitting UKIP councillors are in seats that Labour would usually expect to win. Possibly, just possibly, UKIP could be more of a headache in Staffordshire for Labour than the Conservatives.
If Labour fail to gain Staffordshire (or Derbyshire or Lancashire or Nottinghamshire) due to UKIP that will strengthen those in the Labour Party calling for an in/out EU referendum pledge and a tougher policy on welfare. Conversely if UKIP make sweeping gains in "Conservative areas" this will put pressure on David Cameron.
Of course UKIP could cause trouble for the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and Labour at the same time. Which is the point. That is the attractiveness of an anti-establishment party in an anti-politics age.
For UKIP themselves to make a difference in a more positive way they need to have their gains in the right places. The Green Party run the show in Brighton and Hove – while in most councils they have no representation at all.
I would be surprised if UKIP end up running a council next month. But perhaps they will hold the balance of power. This would pose its own challenges for them, of course. "Look at xxx where UKIP did a deal with Labour and backed an increase in Council Tax." "Look at xxx where UKIP voted with the Tories to bring in cuts…"
Still I suspect that if there is a swathe of UKIP councillors after May 2nd throwing their weight around, the dilemmas posed will something the Party will be only too happy to cope with.