Lib Dems facing meltdown in English county elections as UKIP make gains

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The Liberal Democrats are facing humiliation after a disastrous showing in the local and by-elections held yesterday across much of England and in Anglesey / Ynys Môn in Wales.

Most counts will not take place until today, but the results announced so far point to a strong showing for the rightwing populist UKIP, and a disappointing performance for the three main UK parties.

However it was the Liberal Democrats who bore the brunt of voter disaffection in the South Shields byelection, held following the resignation of David Miliband. 

The party achieved 5,187 votes during the 2010 General Election, but was all but obliterated in yesterday’s byelection, managing only seventh place, achieving a mere 352 votes.  The Lib Dem candidate finished behind an independent candidate, the BNP, and an Independent Socialist.  It is the party’s worst performance in a UK byelection since WW2. 

In a rock-solid safe seat, which has returned a Labour MP since 1934, Labour’s share of the vote fell to 50.5% compared to its 2010 General Election showing of 52%.  Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour candidate, held the seat with a majority of 6,505, down from 11,109 in the 2010 general election.  

Although the Conservatives never poll strongly in South Shields, the party’s vote collapsed from its 2010 result of 7,886 to just 2,857.    

But the party which gained most was UKIP, whose candidate Richard Elvin came second with 5,988 votes.  The party had not previously stood a candidate in the constituency, yet managed to attain 24% of the vote.

Turnout was low, at just 39.2%, and 58% of ballots cast were postal votes, leading to complaints from UKIP’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall that the result was skewed, claiming that the the lax postal voting system in the UK plays into the hands of the bigger parties and stops new political parties from gaining momentum.

UKIP also performed strongly in the six local authorities which counted the votes overnight.  Most councils will hold their counts later today, with results expected on Friday afternoon.  The Conservatives are preparing themselves for the loss of several hundred council seats. In some areas the collapse of the Lib Dems and the loss of Conservative voters to UKIP is likely to allow Labour to claim victory.

Early results saw UKIP take seats in Devon and another in Surrey, their first in the county.  By early morning the party had also taken 9 seats in Essex and over a dozen in Lincolnshire, where their candidate ousted the Conservative deputy leader of the council.

In a sign of the growing political gulf between the constituent members of the UK, the increasing strength of UKIP south of the Border stands in marked contrast to the party’s weakness in Scotland.  UKIP continues to poll poorly in Scottish opinion polls and has failed to make an impact in any Scottish election. 

UKIP’s policy on devolution is to abolish the Scottish Parliament and replace it with a committee of Scottish Westminster MPs, a plan which finds little support in Scotland.  However the increasing success of UKIP, which campaigns on a platform of anti-immigration, withdrawal from the EU, and right wing economic policies, may increase the pressure on the main UK parties to resist further devolution of powers to Holyrood.