Send in the clowns? They're already here

Last year, I went to UKIP's local election campaign launch. It was in the basement of a restaurant in Covent Garden. Chairs were stacked up in the corner, staff buzzed around preparing for the lunch crowd. Nigel Farage arrived in a black cab, had a quick fag outside, and spoke to about five or six reporters, and maybe twice as many supporters.

None of the reporters had questions -- we all had one-to-one interviews arranged. But the supporters had lots of questions. Well, one actually, repeated about seven different ways, put best by a very angry man with a red face and a white beard: "When are we going to get out of BLOODY EUROPE?"

I would never have believed that a year later, Nigel Farage could be challenging Alex Salmond for the title of Britain's most skilled politician.

Yet, here we are. The clowns of a week ago are now a political force worthy of respect, whose supporters must be listened to.

Mr Farage views this as a revolutionary moment. And it is. But probably not for him.

We need a little perspective. UKIP got around a-quarter of the votes, on around a one-third turnout. That equates to 7.5% of the UK electorate.

You have to presume the average UKIP supporter was pretty motivated to vote on Thursday. And if the turnout is doubled at the 2015 General Election, it's hard to see how UKIP's share would hold up.

UKIP is not the third force in British politics, or even the fourth. It's a highly successful pressure group, which has managed to become the de facto home for protest votes now that the Liberal Democrats are in Government.

Remember the SDP? They were going to shake up British politics and smash the two-party system. In alliance with the Liberals, they got more than 50% in one opinion poll in late 1981. And eighteen months later, won 23 seats at the General Election.

By splitting the anti-Thatcher vote, the SDP probably helped to secure the Conservatives' landslide win that year.

UKIP's success will similarly bring all kinds of unintended consequences. It could even be good news for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg expected to lose a wave of southern marginals to the Conservatives in 2015, as traditional Labour voters desert the party they'd backed in 2010, mistakenly hoping to keep the Tories out.

But if a significant chunk of Tory supporters switch to UKIP, that could be enough for a dozen or so Lib Dems to hang on.

That's not David Cameron's only headache. He's running out of time to figure out how to appeal to UKIP voters -- with views to the right of mainstream Conservatism -- without scaring away centre-ground Tories who could easily move over to Labour.

It is perhaps no longer appropriate to dismiss UKIP as clowns or fruitcakes. The party's success on Thursday will shift the tone of the political debate ahead of the 2015 election.

Their surge in support suggests a significant proportion of voters are angry, either about specific things like immigration, or just angry at politicians in general.

Any party choosing to ignore that risks losing even more support. But every other mid-term shock has fizzled out by the time the "proper" election comes around.

And any party whose supporters feel the need to repeatedly state "I'm not a racist, but…" still has an image problem.