Nigel Farage rejects protest vote claim as dust settles on UKIP success and sets his sights on Great Yarmouth
PUBLISHED: 12:11 27 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:11 27 May 2014
Outside a conference room in a smart London hotel, a line of excitable UK Independence Party MEPs formed.
They were waiting to burst into a conference room and herald their first place in the European elections.
Just in the East of England well over half a million people supported Nigel Farage’s party at the polls, and many more nationally.
In the majority of Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire districts, UKIP attracted the most votes.
Success was at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who lost all but one MEP nationally, and the Green Party, which narrowly missed out on a seat in the East for a second time.
Whether Labour and the Conservatives were losers or not, it depends on who you spoke to.
Ed Miliband said Labour’s second place in the European elections showed the party was “making progress”, although admitted there was more to do.
But in the East Labour missed its target of clinching a second seat, and a deeply disappointed Labour MEP Richard Howitt took to the stage immediately to say Labour had to listen to the concerns of people that were feeling disaffected.
“We have to do more to persuade them what we have to offer,” he said.
North-West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham also admitted it had not been a good evening for the Conservatives, with a warning not to panic.
He called for a referendum on the European Union to be brought forward a year to 2016, and for a “measured and sensible” new approach to immigration.
He has hopes there will be new immigration laws announced in the Queen’s Speech on June 4.
But the question is, were the European elections a chance for people to protest in an election perceived not to matter.
UKIP did very well in some local elections, but failed to break through in other areas of the east.
Urban areas including Norwich and Ipswich both remained staunchly in Labour control.
Mr Howitt described the UKIP surge in Europe as a “classic protest vote”,
But he added that nationally people should see that although UKIP grabbed headlines. Labour had got more votes in the east, and nationally had many more seats.
Mr Bellingham agreed it was a protest, adding: “A lot of people I met in the town centres said they were going to vote UKIP and lend their vote, but come back to us in 2015.
But added that they should be mindful of the fact that people did vote for UKIP in large numbers.
At his press conference in London yesterday Mr Farage took on the protest vote issue head on, claiming the mainstream politicians were “clinging onto the comfort blanket that this is a protest vote”.
Pointing to his party’s growing success in local elections and a number of by-elections where the party had come a “close and good second”.
“This idea it is a protest vote, well I would say this: ‘It is beginning to become a bit of a permanent protest’. “A lot of these people have decided they are UKIP voters and they are going to stay with us.”
But with the more unpleasant elements of his party, what was his tactic.
He said he would be appointing spokesmen from the new class of MEPs, and putting resources into vetting their candidates.
“We know the spotlight is on us and we know we have to get it right,” he said.
He also set out a direct challenge to Ed Miliband, in whose constituency of Doncaster he said he was going to announce his manifesto. But added: “It would be ridiculous of me to stand here and say go home and prepare for government, because that ain’t going to happen.
“But what is perfectly realistic is to say don’t just look at the European election result, look at the local election result that happened on Thursday and look at the English county election results that happened in May of last year.
“You haven’t got to be a rocket scientist to work out that in constituencies like Great Grimsby, Boston, Yarmouth, Thanet, Folkestone, Bournemouth, Plymouth, oh we do like to be beside the seaside. Our game is to get this right, our game is to find the right candidates, our game is to target resources at getting a good number of seats in Westminster, and who knows, if UKIP do hold the balance of power next year then indeed there will be a referendum,” he added.