In Depth

Farage celebrates Ukip surge but knives are out for Miliband

'You have to go back to 1980s to find an opposition making so few gains,' says polling expert

Nigel Farage and Ukip caused mayhem for all three parties as they made major gains in yesterday's local elections. But the big loser could turn out to be Ed Miliband.

While making gains in London, Labour failed to make substantial gains in key targets across the south such as Swindon and Thurrock – parliamentary seats they need to win in next May's general election if Miliband is to become Prime Minister. Labour also saw Ukip eat into their support in the old northern heartlands.

And Miliband himself is taking the heat for it. He was attacked overnight for leading an “unforgivably unprofessional” campaign by Labour MP Graham Stringer, who said: “The centrepiece of our campaign has been the cost of living and Ed didn't know his own cost of living, he didn't know how much he was spending on shopping."

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, tweeted: ”We now have a challenge in the Labour Party to renew our sense of mission & excite people about what we can deliver for them.”

The Times quotes an anonymous "leading Labour figure", fearful – with good reason – that Labour will be beaten into second place by Ukip in the European parliament elections, saying: “The narrative around Ed Miliband, because it’s the truth, is that he looks weird, sounds weird, is weird.” 

Miliband’s biggest embarrassment came when Labour lost overall control of Thurrock council in Essex where Ukip have taken over from the Tories as the party of Essex Man, the blue-collar Tories who once rallied to Margaret Thatcher.

Miliband’s special adviser Polly Billington, a former BBC Today producer, has been selected to fight Thurrock at the general election and she could lose it on this showing. Yet back in 2010, when Labour took control of the council, Miliband said it showed Labour was “winning back people’s trust and regaining ground”. 

In London, Labour were jubilant at gaining control of Hammersmith and Fulham, David Cameron’s flagship Tory borough. And three boroughs pass from no overall control to Labour control: Redbridge, Croydon and Merton.

Labour also gained Cambridge for the first time in 18 years, but that was because the Lib Dems lost seats in the university city – a clear warning to David Cameron that a Lib Dem collapse could allow Labour through in the general election. This fear is likely to spur Tories on to a “save Nick Clegg” strategy.

But outside London, Labour failed to win control of Swindon from the Tories, who increased their majority. They also failed to grab Gloucester, Peterborough and Worcester. Most seriously, they lost two Birmingham wards to the Conservatives which means they will be fighting in 2015 to hold onto the Westminster seats of Northfield and Edgbaston.

Just how disappointing were the results for Labour is the subject of considerable debate this morning.

Miliband’s election strategist Douglas Alexander told Radio 4's Today programme: "The headlines are going to be about Ukip this morning, but in those battleground seats... we're making real progress."

But that was contradicted by the BBC’s election number cruncher, John Curtice, who said: “The truth is… Labour have not done well enough. Most of the seats that were being up for grabs yesterday were last fought over on the same day as the 2010 general election. And if you compare Labour's performance vote for vote with 2010, the advance is just three percentage points on what was the day in which Labour recorded its second worst result.”

Psephologist Phil Cowley of Nottingham University said: “You have to go back to the 1980s to find an opposition making so few gains.” Tory MP Claire Perry said: "For a party that purports to be storming back - even Michael Foot made more gains."

Sky News has calculated that if the results so far were replicated at the 2015 general election, Labour would win 308 Westminster seats (up 50), the Tories would be reduced to 272 seats (down 34) and the Lib Dems would have 40 (down 17), making Labour the largest party but short of an overall majority.

As for Ukip, it polled only around seven per cent in London, where their anti-immigration, eurosceptic appeal was rejected by multi-racial voters, but gained around 25 per cent of the vote outside London, damaging the Tories - as had been expected – but also vindicating Farage's promise that Labour would be hurt too.

The Tories lost control in Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point, Maidstone, Peterborough, Purbeck and Southend-on-Sea largely as a result of the Ukip surge rather than a switch to Labour. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called for an electoral pact with Nigel Farage to avoid splitting the Tory vote at the next election – a notion written off as "not a chance" by Education Secretary Michael Gove appearing on the Today programme this morning.

But Ukip are clearly on track to come top in the European elections – the results of which will be announced on Sunday night - and now claim they will be "serious players" in next year's general election. "The Ukip fox is in the Westminster hen house," said Farage.

Having failed to dent the Ukip vote by branding its candidates variously as racists and/or one-trick-ponies, Miliband, Cameron and Clegg are all left wondering: what do we do about Nigel?

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