For the British political establishment, it is the day the sneering stopped. The votes are still being counted but the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is already the winner of local government elections in England. The anti-European Union party led by Nigel Farage, the chain-smoking, beer swilling former City of London trader, is grabbing seats from left and right, and while it is unlikely to take control of a single council it has more than achieved its goal of causing an earthquake in Westminster.
The support for UKIP predicts a looming disaster if Prime Minister David Cameron keeps to his pledge to hold a referendum on whether the U.K. should leave the EU – the country's largest single export market – in 2017. Markets so far have shrugged off the news, with the pound and the FTSE little changed against their peers. Make no mistake, however: should it come to pass, Britain leaving Europe will exert huge downward pressure on the nation's economy. The English local elections coincide with elections for the European Parliament taking place throughout the EU this week; if the latter come to a similar result, the continent's slow recovery from the euro crisis could be in jeopardy.
In Britain, UKIP has broken the political mould but the greatest shock may yet be to come: Mr. Farage has proven that his brand of jingoistic, right-wing anti-immigration politics is appealing not just to the white lower middle-class but to working class traditional Labour supporters, including many Afro-Caribbean and Asian voters.
The result of the European Parliament elections will not be announced until Sunday. For Britain, however, it is the local elections in England that are the critical test of the public mood, ahead of next year's general election. Typically, voters use the election of local councillors to give central government a kicking and, after years of austerity, you might have expected middle-of-the-road voters to switch to Labour in retaliation. Instead, the undecided, the angry, the patriotic but frustrated have all attached themselves to Mr. Farage's bandwagon. The Guardian newspaper, the house paper for Britain's left-leaning intellectuals, expressed its astonishment this morning when UKIP won 47 per cent of the vote in Rotherham, a gritty northern town, long controlled by the Labour Party.
Taunted for weeks by political pundits who labelled Mr. Farage a racist, the UKIP leader was (unusually) calm in his triumph this morning on breakfast television, declaring that his party was taking votes from Labour heartlands. "This idea that the UKIP vote just hurts the Tories has been blown away," he said, as reports came in of seats being lost in councils across industrial cities of the north of England as well as the Tory shires. A headline in The Times this morning shouted that the knives were out for Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, with senior party strategists blamed for failing to see the UKIP threat, while others blamed Mr. Miliband's public image, widely lampooned for being "geeky" and lacking in gravitas.
Meanwhile, the image of Mr. Farage, vilified by the media as a ranting, racist pub bore has failed to dent his party's ascent. The nature of Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system means that UKIP is unlikely to gain control of councils which requires a concentration of votes in strategic areas. That will not worry Mr. Farage, who now sees seats in Westminister within his grasp as the Tories lost overall control of councils in traditionally safe areas of the south of England. Panicky Tory MPs were this morning already talking of the need to forge an alliance with UKIP in the general election as they lost overall control of key councils in the south of England that bode ill for the more important ballot next year.
In London's metropolitan maelstrom of cultures, identities and ethnicities, UKIP has barely had an electoral impact in this election and that explains the consternation of the political pundits and left-wing literati who live and chatter in the capital. In a telling comment, the Guardian's political commentator John Harris reveals his bewilderment: "On my side of politics, the most difficult stuff to process is about things from which the left tends to avert its eyes: notions of identity and belonging, anxiety about accelerated change." There is a terrible, almost racist condescension among the establishment politicians in Britain which prefers to believe that the families of immigrants remain stuck in a cultural and political doldrum. The Tories have been again reminded of their failure to solicit votes among non-white voters but the Labour Party has had the terrible shock of learning that the children and grandchildren of Black and Asian immigrants do not conform to the working class Labour-voting stereotype that afflicted their parents. The descendants of Commonwealth immigrants see themselves as patriotic Britons and they fear the impact of globalization just as strongly as do their white neighbours.
Meanwhile, similar upsets are predicted across Europe in the EU parliament elections with France's National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party, campaigning on similar anti-immigration and Europhobic tickets. Mr. Farage has studiously and cleverly distanced himself from his continental counterparts. Spurning an alliance with the Front National, he drew the ire of its leader, Marine Le Pen, but Mr. Farage is too smart to mix national and European politics. After all, he has built his political reputation on the premise that the latter doesn't matter.