LONDON — The populist UK Independence Party made sweeping gains in local elections in Britain, according to preliminary results released Friday, shaking the country’s political establishment and leaving its mainstream parties scrambling for a response.
The right-wing party took far more votes than expected from the two parties in the center-right coalition government and from the opposition Labor Party, and won at least 150 local council seats; it held two before.
Though the UK Independence Party has yet to gain a seat in the national Parliament, its leader, Nigel Farage, said it was now “a serious player.”
“The UKIP fox is in the Westminster henhouse,” he said Friday.
The voting Thursday coincided with elections for Britain’s representatives in the European Parliament. Though those results will not be announced until Sunday night, they appeared likely to reflect similar sweeping gains for Farage’s party.
The senior partner in the governing coalition, the center-right Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron, lost more than 180 council seats across Britain and lost its majority in at least 11 of the 32 councils it had controlled. The junior partner, the centrist Liberal Democrats, fared even worse, losing more than one-third of the seats it formerly held.
The Labor Party, which already had the most council seats, gained more new ones than the UK Independence Party did, and the populists did not appear to have won majority control of any council. But the UK Independence Party’s inroads came not just in traditionally conservative areas but also in Labor strongholds in the north, spreading alarm through all three of the major national parties.
With its demand for a curb on immigration and a British withdrawal from the European Union, the UK Independence Party has capitalized on the discontent felt by voters after years of financial crisis and austerity. And by presenting itself as an alternative to the mainstream political elite, the party is making headway in its drive to upend the country’s political system. That seemed implausible eight years ago when Cameron, newly elected as Conservative Party leader but not yet in power, described the populist party as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.”
Farage, who has cultivated a jovial, straight-talking image, appeared on television Friday in a well-tailored suit and celebrating with a pint of beer.
For the moment, the UK Independence Party’s gains have not translated into direct political power, because its support is spread around the country, rather than dominating a particular area. The country’s electoral system puts such smaller parties at a distinct disadvantage.
“UKIP should be extremely pleased with themselves,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “But they still face this enormous hurdle of the electoral system, which is going to make it very difficult for them to convert even this level of support into parliamentary seats in 2015.”
It is not clear whether the party can sustain its current support. The populists won 16 percent of the national vote in the European Parliament elections of 2009, only to see their share slump to 3.1 percent in the national election the following year.