THE only time between general elections that all 46 million electors are eligible to vote, Thursday’s local and European elections were bound to attract great interest from politicians and pundits alike.
The last nationwide test of public opinion before next May’s general election, this poll has not disappointed owing to Ukip’s surge. It is also possible to make meaningful comparisons because these wards were last contested in May 2010 when David Cameron became Prime Minister.
While playing down expectations, Labour understood that they needed to secure an additional 500 seats nationally to demonstrate real progress from their defeat in 2010. They fell well short of that target, only achieving a small improvement on their share of the vote.
Modest gains in some parts, especially London, might have helped to soften the disappointment, but they hardly provide the ideal platform to win in 2015. Locally, there is a sense of achievement in taking control of Bradford that the Respect party denied Labour in 2012.
The Conservative Party accepted that setbacks were inevitable, with losses of up to 200 being dismissed as the plight that faces all governing parties. To some extent, their performance was overshadowed by the further drubbing suffered by the Liberal Democrats.
This was illustrated in Sheffield – a city they had controlled just four years ago – where they lost six seats and were pushed into third place in terms of vote share, five points behind Ukip. The last three years have shown Liberal Democrat councillors across the country the price of being the junior coalition partner at Westminster.
One small comfort for Nick Clegg is that, despite his party’s poor performance in Sheffield, he would have been re-elected to his own seat in Hallam.
Yorkshire’s first results came from Rotherham and set the tone for what was happening. Taking 10 seats, and achieving a 3.5 per cent lead over Labour in their share of the vote, the town would now have two Ukip MPs if Thursday’s vote had, in fact, been a general election.
Gains elsewhere were perhaps not on the same scale but, in wards contested, they routinely secured between one quarter and one third of the vote.
Ukip’s performance in the region also contradicts the view that the party mainly takes votes from the Conservatives.
While this might be true when their vote share is below 20 per cent, it starts to come disproportionately from Labour once they move over that level in the North .
As they dissect the results, the main party leaders will be speculating what this all means for them, for their parties and for next year’s general election.
Looking to the past, there might appear some glimmer of hope. In elections immediately prior to a general election, Ukip’s performance in local, and especially European, elections has not been matched at the succeeding general election.
In 2009, for example, they obtained over 16 per cent of the vote in the European elections but fell back at the general election.
This time, however, it might be different. First, there is opinion poll evidence that fewer Ukip supporters intend to return to their traditional party allegiances, with around 55 per cent indicating that they will stay with Nigel Farage’s next May.
Second, the impact that Ukip has been able to achieve by targeting councils illustrates how they might be able to overcome the challenges of the first-past-the-post electoral that faces all third parties.
This is clear from the difference between what happened in Rotherham with what happened in Kirklees, where the small number of Ukip candidates in the latter meant that the council was broadly unchanged.
However, it will not simply be the three main party leaders who will need to come to terms with what has happened. Once the euphoria has settled, Ukip will also need to do some careful thinking if they are to capitalise on this week’s results and move from what, for many, still appears to be a largely one-person, one-issue, party.
Even the main party leaders acknowledge that Mr Farage was successful in speaking in terms that voters understood. When it comes to votes next May, however, that is unlikely to be sufficient.
While Ukip might have captured the mood of the electorate on some specific issues, there is rather less evidence, even amongst its own supporters, that they are persuaded that the party has the answers when it comes to the economy, jobs or healthcare. It is going to be a busy 12 months for all leaders, Ukip included.
In the meantime, Ukip will no doubt do even better tomorrow when the European election results are announced, aided by a PR voting system that gives a more equitable share of seats to votes. Indeed, the story that night is almost certain to be one where the Eurosceptic party triumphs at the expense of the most pro-Europe party, the Liberal Democrats.
The main lesson from Thursday is the one that became evident in 2010 and has been confirmed at the four subsequent local elections. Voters have not yet been won over by any of the parties and the most likely outcome in 2015 still remains another hung parliament.
Professor Colin Mellors is a political scientist and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of York.