UKIP pulled off a political coup in South Tyneside today after three borough councillors defected to the rapidly-emerging party.
Independents George Elsom, Steve Harrison and Linda Hemmer have signed up in a bid to break Labour’s stranglehold on power in the council chamber.
The move comes after UKIP won almost a quarter of the votes in the recent South Shields Parliamentary by-election.
The Euro-sceptic party is also aiming to score more success at the two council ward by-elections in Cleadon and East Boldon and Primrose in Jarrow later this month.
Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of UKIP nationally, was in South Shields today to welcome the three defectors into the fold.
Talks over the switch are believed to have been ongoing for weeks.
The move comes with Labour holding 48 of the 54 council seats on South Tyneside Council. The three UKIP councillors will become the official opposition group, leaving just one Conservative, Coun Jeff Milburn, in Cleadon and East Boldon, and one independent, Coun Jane Branley, in Westoe, to make up the numbers.
Coun Elsom, who represents Cleadon Park, acknowledged he does not agree with all UKIP policies.
But he said its stance on many local issues tallies with his own views, and he hopes the switch will help break the borough’s “one party state”. He said: “They don’t believe in having a party whip, support there being two councillors instead of three for each ward, and oppose first-class train travel for councillors.
“UKIP is hitting a chord with the public, as you can see from the recent by-election result. If we can take the momentum from that by-election and transport it into the local elections, we can help break Labour’s one-party state.”
Coun Elsom admitted there would be an element of “suck it and see” over the switch, but believes the calculated gamble could pay off in strengthening opposition to Labour.
Coun Harrison, who, alongside Coun Hemmer represents Fellgate and Hedworth, says he is also happy the three councillors will still be able to vote with their conscience – not on party lines.
He added: “I also share UKIP’s concerns on the open-door immigration policy in Europe, especially with Romanians and Bulgarians free to come here in January and access our health care, jobs and housing.
“We need to get our own country in shape first.”
Recent national opinion polls show Nigel Farage’s party pushing the Lib Dems into third place.