A lot is being said lately about the rising prominence of UKIP in British Politics, following their performance in the latest round of by-elections, and the Rotherham council decision to remove children from UKIP members. Even the Guardian had a piece about them ‘coming in from the cold’. But just how much of this supposed coming of age of UKIP is a real and lasting trend, and how much is down to one-off factors and short-term events is debatable…
And as I like a good debate, I’m going to be arguing for why I think the latter is the case here.
Firstly, it’s important to point out just how perfectly the political landscape has fallen for UKIP. The Lib Dems’ popularity has hit an all time low, polling at around 8-10%. By going into coalition with the Tories they’ve lost support from their more left-wing base, whilst their tuition fees betrayal means the student vote is now firmly in the Labour column. As the Lib Dems vote diminishes, so the standard protest vote – at its zenith in by-elections – must find a new home.
Equally, the Tories popularity has fallen from the general election. Their economic policies are not popular with the left, whilst their ‘moderinsation’ (you know, accepting the earth revolves around the sun, using electricity and living in a house with less than 3 footmen) is going too far for those on the right of the Tory support spectrum, with their dithering on Europe and perception of giving in to the Lib Dems on certain issues playing perfectly into UKIP’s hands.
Europe is a growing issue, of course, with the euro zone crisis and a constant, full-on campaign from the right-wing portion of the media on the EU, and persistent polling showing people want a referendum on the issue. (Although polling regularly shows people want a referendum on most issues…)
Finally, we have the recent Rotherham council decision to remove children of a European family from a family who are members of a party that (given their way) would have prevented those children entering the country in the first place… A logical decision to me, a rallying call for UKIP…
Anyhoo… the point is; conditions are perfect right now for UKIP to perform at optimum levels. So, how are they doing…
Well, in the polls, they were regularly hitting the 6-8% mark before the ‘Rotherham scandal’, since then, they achieved 11% in a Sun/Yougov poll. So… better than previously, still not too good, barely edging out the Lib Dems, even after all their Christmas present came at once.
But what about their achievements in the recent by-elections?
Well, their best performance, unsurprisingly, was in Rotherham, winning 21.8% of the vote. Pretty good, but we should also point out this is a by-election in which the Tories slipped from 2nd in 2010 to 5th, behind the BNP and Respect, whilst the Lib Dems ended up a distant 8th behind the English Democrats and a local vicar… Everyone who was going to vote UKIP did so, and the result was still far behind the Labour landslide.
To call this by-election a fair representation of the national scheme would equally be ludicrous, and it’s clear that the scandal (which didn’t prevent Labour increasing their share of the vote…) and a dim view of the coalition from a northern, traditionally Labour seat gives a rather ‘unique’ set of results.
What about the other by-elections? Well, a few weeks back in the Corby by-election they achieved 14.32% of the vote, in an election where turnout was woefully low and the Lib Dems fell to less than 5% of the vote. In yesterday’s Middlesbrough by-election they got 11.8% of the vote – enough to get them a second place showing in another strong Labour seat, where the coalition partners suffered significantly and Labour’s own share of the vote jumped nearly 15%.
And that’s all the good news for UKIP. Good showing in seats where the coalition have lost major ground, taking votes from annoyed Tory voters and the vacuum the Lib Dem’s have left in the traditional protest vote area. (In Corby, UKIP’s vote share rose almost exactly in line with the percent of the vote the Tories lost, whilst Labour’s percentage rose at almost exactly the same rate as the Lib Dem’s fell) It’s also worth adding on the subject of the protest vote that the BNP and Respect both achieved over 8% of the vote in Rotherham and the Peace Party got 6.3% of the vote (and 3 less votes than the Tories) in Middlesbrough…
On the flip side of things, their Cardiff South, Manchester Central and Croydon North performances were all underwhelming: In Manchester Central, they secured less than 5% of the vote, losing their deposit. In Cardiff, UKIP’s Simon Zeigler, standing two years on from a 5th place showing in 2010 achieved another 5th place showing with an additional 34 votes to his name… In Croydon North UKIP saw a 4% rise, barely securing their deposit, finishing well behind the Tories, despite big falls from the coalition parties.
So, if these are the performances they’re putting in at by-elections, where protest votes are high, turnouts low and voter anger at the current government increasing all the while, one must ask whether UKIP are A) at all likely to replicate even these meager performances at the next general election, and B) even if they did, would they even come away with a single seat?
On A) Barring another council handing UKIP another PR victory on a plate, it’s doubtful we’ll see them achieve anywhere close to the 20% mark. Equally, we know the protest vote in between general elections is high and that it’s likely to fall at a general election. Tory voters who feel disaffected at the moment may well come back in large numbers to the party with a hope of electoral success, which would leave UKIP’s share greatly diminished.
For B) we can simply ask whether their uniquely high score of 21.8% would successfully secure a single seat on the national scale? The answer is no. Even with 11% nationally (and I doubt they’ll secure that) the UKIP vote is spread thinly, and thanks to FPTP and the fact that most of their best showings are in northern seats where Labour hold huge majorities, I just don’t see them even getting a Green Party style beachhead victory.
So then why are UKIP getting so much attention? Nigel Farage’s comments on the by-elections ‘successes’ are running as the main story on BBC News, papers like the Guardian are lending credence to UKIP as more than just the flavour of the month for the far-right and if you listen to a UKIP supporter for two seconds you’d think they’d just won a general election. But the reality of the situation still stands thusly: They have no seats in parliament, a dozen MEPs thanks to their single-issue stance as the active abstain vote, a few councillors, mostly limited to little England town halls, a couple of Lords, and that’s about it… Respect have more MPs and Green have more MPs, councillors and seats in the London Assembly to boot.
Well, I can see a couple of reasons; Firstly, the right-wing media are in love with them. The Mail, The Sun, Express, Telegraph et al have in UKIP what they used to like about the Tories. It’s a populist party of free-market enterprise and low taxes, plus they’re seen as being against all this political correctness, multiculturalism mumbo jumbo. And with the Tories popularity being in doubt, and papers in need of having someone be seen as the good guys in the political arena, UKIP are positioned perfectly to fit that gap.
Secondly, their attention is in no small part down to their supporters and the way UKIP plays itself as being outside of the main three party political norm. In a country with so much voter apathy and where education in political affairs is so limited, it becomes easy for people to view Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems as basically the same. UKIP thus have a brand identity of being outside of the mainstream. With such an identity comes brand appeal that is easy for their supporters to sell; ‘What are we? Well we’re not Labour/Tories/LibDems’. And equally for the media, even the well intentioned centre-ground media, any attempts at fairness in reporting and giving a voice to political views outside of the mainstream can easily turn into giving UKIP a voice to publicise themselves.
Then there’s claim that they’re becomming the 2nd party of the north. In recent times, that mantle has been with the Lib Dems, and what the Manchester Central results show is that even if the Lib Dems see big falls in support at the next general election, they’ll still be the 2nd part in cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield etc where the Lib Dems have made in-roads over the Labour Party’s days in government. In smaller towns like Rotherham, meanwhile, the Lib Dems gains were much more muted, as the more working class demographics of such areas were more resistant to the Lib Dems’ middle class message. *If* we see repeats of Rotherham and Middlebrough at the next general election, and the Lib Dems do see ~10% losses, then it is conceivable that UKIP could come second in plenty of by-elections. Although, to see this would be more a victory for the far-right than for UKIP.
So, 2nd spot in some northern towns, if everything keeps going their way. In more rural areas, you’d have to assume that unless an electoral deal is struck between the Tories and UKIP, all that would happen is Labour would take seats with the Tories coming second and UKIP third, assuming Tory voters come back to the party they see as having the better electoral chances. Meanwhile, northern cities will most likely maintain a Lab/Lib split.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out, even in the wake of Rotherham, and Ed Miliband and Michael Gove’s comments; Dave Cameron was basically right about them. They are, to many voters, the racist party of choice. The BNP didn’t fair well in these by-elections, losing ground in terms of share of the vote. We can be naive and say it evaporated, or acknowledge the reality that UKIP are the new, borderline respectable, face of the far-right.
It’s worth noting UKIP’s avenues for expansion – like all smaller parties – are limited. Their potential for making a splash on the main stage of politics – aka, getting a seat in the House of Commons – are slim. They failed at the PCC elections to make an impact, failed to do anything other than match their polling numbers in recent by-elections (Rotherham excluded) and continue to show that their only true electoral outlet is European elections as the active abstain vote for the large chunk of the population who view the EU negatively.
They’re a single issue party, who have failed to gain serious traction even under perfect circumstances. And although Nigel Farage is playing the media beautifully, come the next general election, I doubt they’ll be much more than the 4th party in the polls, and holders of no seats, unless the Tories get really desperate…
In the meantime, it’s time they were paid the true attention they deserve, and be relegated back behind the other 11 parties who ARE represented in parliament and recognised as nothing more than the bluster and hot air that usually accompanies a far-right party.