No one should deny that the really big winners last night were UKIP. Few people had seen it coming much before Polling Day itself, John Rentoul being an honourable exception. To come second, only 1,711 behind the Liberal Democrats was an incredible achievement, and much of the credit must go to the excellent UKIP candidate Diana James. People liked her. You never know, people may have liked Maria Hutchings had they been given the chance to.
But as the afterglow of near victory fades and Nigel Farage departs Eastleigh, he will be ruminating on the challenges facing his party. Farage is not one to rest on his laurels, but knows now he and his colleagues will come under renewed scrutiny by a media gasping for controversy. He knows that his party’s policy platform will be examined in minute detail. He knows that his promise to make UKIP a truly national party will be questioned. But he has a simple way of dealing with that. He can promise now, and unequivocally to stand UIP candidates in every County Council seat in May. Yes, all 2,000 of them. Up to now, UKIP hasn’t really taken local elections very seriously. That must change. They only have a handful of councillors throughout the country at the moment. Any successful national party needs a local government base.
Secondly – and Nigel Farage acknowledged this earlier – they need to ensure that the people they pick as Euro candidates for the Euro elections next year are not the normal list of weirdos and crackpots, several of whom then don’t last the course, defect or get put in jail. Diane James was a perfect candidate – she looked good, sounded good and was, well, normal. Very unusual for a UKIP candidate, and I mean that in a caring way, as Dame Edna would say.
I also think the media need to buck up their game with regard to UKIP. They have far more MEPs than the Liberal Democrats and in the runup to the Euro elections they certainly deserve at least equal airtime with the LibDems. I have already agreed with my production team at LBC that we must increase the representation given to UKIP, especially on my evening Parliament Hour each Wednesday. But the challenge for UKIP is to ensure that they can put up credible people to speak on their behalf. UKIP must be more than just about Nigel Farage. Making Diane James his official deputy would be a good start.