UKIP has been consistently polling in the high single digits and low double digits across Great Britain for well over a year now. This is the most significant and sustained burst of polling for a fourth party in Britain since at least the Greens’ post-Euro election surge in 1989. Arguably, the UKIP surge is more significant than that, as it has not depended on the positive publicity generated by an unexpected breakthrough in an off year election fuelled by protest votes, but has simply emerged from nowhere, driven doubtless partly by ex-Tories disillusioned with the party’s record in government, and partly by the crisis in the Eurozone. Its support is also remarkably consistent from month to month, as opposed to the ‘sine curve’ of sudden emergence and equally sudden collapse more common to ephemeral minor parties in the UK and internationally.
The context of the unexpected 15% Green Party vote in the 1989 European Elections is also instructive. An unpopular Tory government faced a Labour Party beset by internal personality conflicts and led by a man with mediocre popularity ratings hounded by the right-wing press. The LibDems were in the midst of their immediate post-merger turmoil and, just like today, were not in a position to be the recipient of protest votes.
By the 1992 General Election, of course, all three major parties had gotten their act together to some extent and the Greens sank without trace. When they did eventually return their first MP in 2010, it was a result of the entire resources of the party being put behind tenacious local activism in a single seat, rather than a national breakthrough.
Despite the consistently high votes they now attract at Euro elections, UKIP have yet to come even close to winning a parliamentary seat. Their vote has hitherto disappeared like frost on a sunny morning come general election time, and unlike the Greens and the LibDems, UKIP’s local government base is virtually non-existent. The party simply didn’t operate a targeting strategy in any general election before 2010, when it decided to throw its resources behind a quixotic attempt to upend Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham, a constituency with no UKIP track record and without especially favourable demographics for it.
This encapsulates one of UKIP’s problems – it has yet to grasp that the electorate does not care all that much about many of the things that UKIP cares about. While Bercow may be seen as the spawn of Satan among highly politically aware voters on the radical right, he’s hardly a household name, is reasonably liked by his own constituents and in any case, with no Labour or LibDem candidate standing against the speaker, was always going to receive the votes of the large liberal-left minority interest which exists in any parliamentary constituency.
UKIP equally has yet to grasp that it may better advised to shut up about the EU for a while (people know they’re against it), to focus on issues like immigration and law-and-order, regarded as being of much more importance by the electorate. Presenting an economically right-wing alternative that isn’t in thrall to the City of London might also prove surprisingly popular.
I think this is the make or break moment for the UKIP project. UKIP came second in the 2009 Euros, and although they trailed the Tories by 28% to 17%, this was at a point when the Tories were riding high in the polls and UKIP were, until the surge of coverage they always get immediately before a European election, barely registering. In a low turnout election that most people don’t care about to an explicitly European body, it is not impossible that UKIP could actually be the largest party.
Could they then ride a post-Euro election surge to a breakthrough in the House of Commons? Possibly – the British electorate, like those in just about every Western country besides the USA, is becoming increasingly disaffected and consequently disloyal. But it’s a big ask.
UKIP does not seem to have much of a clue about how a minor party builds up to winning parliamentary seats and it seems unlikely that they will get one in the time they have left. Especially as the few defectors they attract with serious election organisation skills come from the Tories, where campaigns are heavily nationalised and most effective when they are, rather than the LibDems whose hyper-localised campaigning style is more suited to insurgent minor parties. The Greens copied the LibDem playbook successfully in Brighton and almost in Norwich in 2010, and the BNP also frankly plagiarised LibDem campaigning material before being undone by its transparent fragility as a political party. UKIP just doesn’t seem to get it.
It’s hard to think of anywhere where UKIP has a local government base or a significant month-in-month-out ground operation. Nigel Farage has stalked around the South Country at election after election, from Salisbury to Bexhill to Ramsgate to Buckingham, without ever leaving an infrastructure behind him.
UKIP’s ideological model ought to be the Canadian Reform Party of the 1980s, which broke through by winning over those who felt culturally repelled from Mulroney’s pro-Quebec, socially liberal, Tories. The problem for UKIP is there is no Alberta, no great reservoir of culturally conservative, anti-centralist, tendency even in their best regions of the UK.
It’s not hard to identify the constituencies that might prove most amenable to a UKIP breakthrough, though – pockets of Southern England which are almost entirely white, with high elderly populations, relatively poor national transport links which prevent them being sucked into London’s ever expanding exurbia, and relatively low levels of either public sector employment or non-age related benefit dependence. They are particularly thick on the ground along the south and east coasts, where there are even places where it’s relatively common to see Union Flags on flagpoles in gardens these days – the Isle of Wight and the Sussex coast in particular.
A LibDem collapse in the South West might open up space for UKIP to break through there, although I’m not sure that they aren’t perceived as being too economically right-wing for the LibDems’ working-class core vote in the West Country, despite the big Euro election vote they get in the region.
In any case, all this depends on some hyper-active UKIP member or small group of members getting the personnel and money together make this happen, and having the time and stamina to sustain relentless activity, week after week, for two and a half years. I’m just not aware of anyone who fits the bill.
You Gov’s Peter Kellner notes the nightmare scenario for the Tories is a sort of 1983-in-reverse where UKIP does well enough to cost the Tories dozens of seats while not actually winning any MPs itself. Such an outcome would have been rendered impossible had the AV referendum gone through. It would be deliciously ironic if a UKIP surge, mediated through the First Past the Post electoral system, wrecked Tory chances in 2015. But there is far too much water yet to flow under the bridge to predictions about what might happen in 2015 with any confidence.