LONDON: The anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) was celebrating some of its best ever results on Friday following local elections which delivered a bloody nose to Britain's ruling coalition.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said his eurosceptic party could no longer be dismissed as a protest movement after winning on average one quarter of the vote in early results from 35 council elections.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives appeared to have lost most from UKIP's surge, and they were also pushed into third place in a parliamentary by-election held at the same time.
“This is a real sea-change in British politics,” Farage said.
“We have always done well in European elections, but people haven't seen us as being relevant to local elections or, in some ways, general elections.
“So for us to be scoring, on average, 26 per cent of the vote where we stand is, I think, very significant indeed,” said Farage, a charismatic Member of the European Parliament.
UKIP still does not have a single member of parliament and will struggle to translate its local election success into victory at the 2015 national election.
But the results are a boost to a party once described by Cameron as full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, and bode well for its prospects in European Parliament elections next year.
Elections were held on Thursday in 34 local authorities in England and another in Wales, with more than 2,300 seats up for grabs.
With eight councils declared, UKIP had won 42 new seats and Cameron's Conservatives lost control of two councils.
The ruling coalition of the Tories and their Liberal Democrat junior partners were braced for losses in the mid-term vote, which is often used by voters to hammer ruling parties.
But the results were sobering for the government, particularly in the parliamentary by-election of South Shields in northeast England, sparked by the resignation of former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband.
The opposition Labour party held the seat, although its majority was almost halved, and UKIP came second with 24 per cent of the vote. The Tories came in a poor third and the Lib Dems were humiliated in seventh place, with just 352 votes.
Tory chairman Grant Shapps said that his party, senior members of which had earlier in the week dismissed UKIP as “clowns”, understood the message from voters.
“We get it. We have heard you, we understand and we are also anxious to make progress,” he told the BBC.
“I think the results we have seen so far demonstrate people have concerns and reasons for voting in different directions, including UKIP, which go beyond Europe.
“We need to grasp the issues people care about. A lot needs to change and we need to change things faster.”
Created to campaign against British membership of the European Union, UKIP has picked up support from socially conservative voters, many of them older people disillusioned by the mainstream parties, particularly with their failure to control immigration.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said UKIP has been polling at up to 13 per cent in opinion surveys, so its doubling in support in the early results was a surprise.
“However you look at it, this is clearly a phenomenal performance by UKIP,” he told the BBC.
UKIP's success follows increased scrutiny of the party in the media ahead of the elections.
Several UKIP candidates were exposed as having far-right views, but the Conservatives were also left struggling to form a coherent response to the new threat to their right flank.
In a move seen as an attempt to claw back Tory support, Cameron indicated Wednesday that he may bring forward legislation on holding a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.
He had previously said the commitment to hold an in-out vote – itself widely viewed as a response to UKIP's rise – would not be put into law until after the general election in 2015.
However, Rob Ford, an expert in UKIP at the University of Manchester, warned: “UKIP success is today being driven by domestic issues, especially immigration, not the EU.
“Offering a tougher line on Europe is not the solution.”