Local Elections 2019: The Threats Ahead

David Lawrence - 02 04 19

The political landscape has altered radically since these seats were last contested in 2015.

Brexit continues to dominate British politics, and Parliament’s handling of the process has been widely unpopular. Our February 2019 polling showed that just 2% of people were impressed with the way politicians were handling Brexit. Acrisis of growing political mistrust across all sections of the population and an intense anti-politics mood has set in, with our polling finding that 55% of people think our political system is broken.

Narratives of “betrayal” and accusations that politicians and Remain-backing figures are “traitors” have become worryingly common in hard pro-Brexit and right-wing discourse, amplified by sections of the press. As the tortured Brexit proceedings continue, the rifts in British society are set to deepen. It is against this fraught backdrop that the local elections will be fought.


On paper, such conditions should play into UKIP’s hands. The party was at the height of its popularity during the 2015 elections, receiving 3.9 million votes in the General Election and making a gain of 176 council seats in the locals, taking control of Thanet, its first council. However, the party has been in electoral freefall since the EU Referendum, losing almost 270 councillors and gaining just four across the 2017 and 2018 elections. Over the past year, under the leadership of Gerard Batten MEP, the party has also transformed into an overtly far-right party with an explicit anti-Muslim agenda, meaning that the threat it poses today is quite different to that of four years ago.

UKIP has endured heavy defections, the most recent wave in December after Batten appointed the far-right extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) as his advisor on grooming gangs, prompting former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and most of its MEPs to walk and subsequently join the newly formed Brexit Party. Whilst the Brexit Party has claimed that it will not contest the local elections, the split was damaging, and the knowledge that an alternative party stands poised to contest a potential General or European Parliament election may still eat into UKIP’s share of the protest votes.

Crucially, many local organisers have also abandoned ship, impacting UKIP’s ability to campaign at ground level. In the south east, much of the party’s infrastructure has gone in Thanet, only five of the 22 councillors it won in Tendring in 2015 remain in the party, and its entire Thurrock operation, once considered a flagship branch, defected last year to form the Thurrock Independents. In Boston only five of the 13 councillors it won in 2015 remain, despite the fact 75.6% of Boston voters opted to Leave in the Referendum, and the party failed to stand a single candidate in Hartlepool last year. In total, only 58 of UKIP’s 2015 crop of councillors remain in the party (including 13 listed as Independent & UKIP in Thanet).

This is not to discount the potential threat, however. Late March opinion polls have UKIP hovering at around 8%, a mid-March Opinium poll into voting intentions if the UK participates in the European Parliament elections had UKIP at 17%, indicating that the party remains the household Eurosceptic brand (at least prior to the launch of Farage’s Brexit Party). As Brexit anxieties mount, there is a real risk that it may attract votes based on brand recognition alone from voters who may be unaware, or simply not care, that the party now stands closer to the British National Party (BNP) of 2010 than the Conservative right.

Despite numerous defections, Batten has revitalised the party’s membership, raising it from a February 2018 low of 18,000 to roughly 27,000 (still well short of the 46,000 during the 2015 elections). In doing so, he has pivoted the party to appeal to hooligan-led street movements, extreme online elements and those with anti-Muslim inclinations. UKIP’s worst tendencies are now at the fore of the party, and are no longer tempered by so-called “moderates”.

UKIP has hired two campaign managers, Alan Graves and Peter Mcilvenna, and aims to field 2,500-3,000 candidates, qualifying the party for a TV broadcast. In early March, Batten claimed the party had “well over 1,000 in place”, which is evidently far short of its target. UKIP’s reduced capacity looks sure to further impede its infamously shaky vetting process, and combined with UKIP’s thirst for candidates and direct appeal to far-right elements, any Lennon supporter – or worse – who puts their name forward could well end up on the ballot without proper checks.

All this sets the stage for an extremely ugly UKIP campaign of the kind not witnessed since the heyday of the BNP, marked by nativist, anti-Muslim and histrionic anti-elite rhetoric. In particular, we can expect UKIP to focus on inflaming local tensions in areas that have been blighted by grooming gangs. In 2018, Batten singled out Labour-led Rochdale as an area of potential gain, with UKIP candidates averaging 13.5% in the area; in 2015 the party came second in 70% of the seats it contested here. Telford and Wrekin is another potential area of focus.

The party looks set to contest all 20 seats up for grabs in the former BNP target of Oldham, an area of high dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a history of racial tensions. UKIP’s branch collapsed in 2017, but has since been revamped by local leader Paul Goldring. Derby, where UKIP won two of its three councillors last year, will also be an area of focus, given that Alan Graves, who more than doubled his majority in the Alvaston ward to roughly 59% last year, is now one of UKIP’s campaign managers and another Alvaston seat is up for grabs. The same may be true for Burnley, as UKIP averaged 20% here last year and won a seat in the Hapton with Park ward. Hapton especially has a history of far-right support, being the only ward where the BNP has held all three council seats.

The For Britain Movement

UKIP’s overt far-right direction has siphoned off much of the potential support of the For Britain Movement, the anti-Muslim party founded by former UKIP leadership contestant Anne Marie Waters in 2017. However, whilst the party does not pose a credible electoral threat, it is set to provide a vehicle for a multitude of extreme elements, such as former BNP members, who are barred from UKIP. The party was forced to eject several of the 15 candidates it stood last year after HOPE not hate exposed multiple incidents of extreme racism and antisemitism from its candidates, with one Leeds candidate having a history in the now-proscribed nazi terror group National Action.

The party looks likely to field a strong slate of candidates in Stoke-on-Trent. The area is a former BNP stronghold, and prominent former organisers for both UKIP and the BNP are understood to be pooling their efforts into Waters’ party. Stoke is home to the party’s sole councillor, Richard Broughan, who won his seat on a UKIP ticket in 2015 in the Abbey Hulton and Townsend ward, finding acceptance in For Britain after being suspended from UKIP and expelled from City Independents. Policies in the branch’s drafted local manifesto are eyebrow-raising, including launching “a tender to provision our own private security contractor to provide surveillance, monitoring, enforcement and prevention services that will work hand-in-hand with the police force but not under their command”.

For Britain’s Epping Forest branch in particular is one to watch, being rife with former BNP figures, and under the guidance of Eddy Butler, the BNP’s former elections guru, has been heavily canvassing the area. One target seat is Waltham Abbey, where former BNP councillor Julian Leppert is standing. For Britain kicked off its local election campaign at an event in Loughton, Essex over the weekend, with Lennon’s former aide Lucy Brown, photographed over the summer wearing a nazi symbol, as a speaker.

Julian Leppert (standing), with Anne Marie Waters (centre left) and Lucy Brown (right)

Leeds, where UKIP fielded more than half of its candidates last year, again looks to be an important area for the group, as does Sandwell again a former area of high BNP support. The party stood three candidates in Sandwell in 2018 – its second highest – with its candidates receiving an average of 8.1%. For Britain’s national fundraising officer, Darryl Magher, is based in the area.

Over the past year For Britain have also heavily canvassed Hartlepool, where UKIP has collapsed, and Waters has hinted that Sunderland may be a key area, believing herself to be well known due to the 2017 “Justice for Chelsey” campaign.

Other Far-Right parties

The anti-Muslim street gang Britain First is also looking to stand candidates, looking to exploit the “enormous political vacuum” left open by UKIP’s “deep decline”. The group’s target areas include the Littlemoor and Preston ward in Dorset, the Rowley ward in Sandwell, and the Ware area in Hertfordshire.

Last year also saw the collapse of the BNP, which lost its final councillor, Brian Parker of the Marsden ward in Pendle, Lancashire. The party fielded a paltry 16 candidates in 2018 and, with the party leadership having seemingly lost the will to contest elections, can be expected to continue being an irrelevance this year.

The fascist National Front, still somehow clinging on to existence, may also stand a handful of candidates; last year former BNP leader and veteran Holocaust denier Richard Edmonds represented the group, as did the nazi Kevin Layzell.

Britain First campaiging


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