Though it was founded in 1993, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has only recently enjoyed a seemingly meteoric surge in support that promises to situate it among the most prominent of Eurosceptic populist parties in the EU. With the by-election victories achieved by Tory defectors Douglas Carswell in Clacton and Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood, UKIP have now established a representative presence at Westminster that augments those already forged in local and European parliamentary politics. It is clearly no longer possible to dismiss the party as a fringe organisation of anti-EU obsessives that share little in common with the electoral mainstream – ‘swivel-eyed loons’ in the memorable if tactless words of a senior Conservative aide in 2013. In the 2010 British General Election, the party achieved just 3% of the popular vote and did not come remotely close to winning a seat in the House of Commons. Since then, however, it has made meteoric electoral progress. By the end of 2012 it was consistently rating at around 10% in the opinion polls and achieved by-election support as high as 22% in Rotherham in November of that year, and 28% in Eastleigh in February 2013 (in both of which its candidates placed second). In the May 2013 local elections UKIP averaged 23% where it stood, returning 147 councillors, while it topped the European parliamentary elections of 2014 in the UK, gaining 27.5% of the nationwide vote and 24 MEPs. And now there are incursions into the Westminster redoubts of the major parties.
One of the most striking features of UKIP’s growth seems to that it is based on increasingly diverse political support. Initially regarded as a refuge for disgruntled Tories, it has become apparent that the party’s support base can no longer be so simplistically characterised. Since the May 2013 local elections, Nigel Farage has taken every opportunity to argue that his party would henceforth be targeting votes from across the spectrum of major parties in the UK. His contention was that hitherto UKIP tended to run candidates mainly in Conservative territory, but as the party grew so it would be contesting more and more Labour-held seats and the breadth of UKIP’s appeal would become increasingly apparent. The goal is to exploit the failings of a liberal metropolitan elite that fails to connect with or represent the concerns of tradition working-class voters. These concerns relate primarily to immigration and secondarily to the EU, of course. Indeed, opinion research consistently suggests that UKIP fares relatively well among older, less well-educated, white working class voters (especially males). These are the ‘left-behinds’ who have failed to reap the benefits of social and economic change in contemporary Britain. They are disillusioned with the major parties, embittered by immigration, and Eurosceptic. Indeed, this is a fairly typical support profile for the populist radical right across Europe. Thus, where once we might have supposed that a strong UKIP performance at a national election would come chiefly at the expense of the Conservatives, this now seems far less clear-cut. So which of the major two parties is the seemingly relentless advance of UKIP most likely to damage at the general election of May 2015?
Until 2013, the picture was relatively straightforward. Estimates suggested that between 45% and 60% of UKIP supporters in 2010 were ex-Tory voters, compared to less than 10% who were ex-Labour. Moreover, UKIP-ers were plainly closer to the Conservatives in other ways. On a scale of 0-10 (where 0=’dislike’ and 10=’like’) they gave the Conservatives an average rating of 5.57 in 2010, but Labour only 3.53; indeed, they preferred the British National Party (BNP) (4.80) to Labour. They were also much more likely to read newspapers sympathetic to the Conservatives (the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph) and much less likely to read those favouring Labour (the Daily Mirror).
More importantly, perhaps, they appeared to be significantly closer to the Tories in ideological terms. On another 10-point scale, where 0=left-wing and 10=right-wing, UKIP voters in 2010 located themselves at 8.23 on average, only slightly to the left of where they felt the Conservative Party to be (8.74) – but comfortably to the right of where they perceived Labour to reside (6.49). Moreover, UKIP’s working class supporters were distinct from Labour’s core working class voters in several respects – more self-consciously right-wing, more exercised by issues of cultural identity, more immersed in the Tory press, less likely to live in Labour-held constituencies – and, indeed, far less likely to have been Labour voters at all in previous elections.
In light of this, what has been happening over the past 12 months is interesting. As UKIP support has grown, so it has expanded into Labour territory – and there are signs that it has been adapting its policy profile accordingly. In their book Revolt on the Right Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin presented a list of those seats likely to be most winnable for UKIP based on demographic profile and size of two-party swing required for a UKIP victory; 12 of the top 15 are currently held by Labour (starting with Great Grimsby). It is no coincidence that there are clear signs of a significant re-think by UKIP on policy. Farage famously dismissed the 2010 manifesto as ‘drivel’ and announced a thoroughgoing review of party policy in 2013. Gone from the party’s website now are all claims of being ‘traditional conservative and libertarian’, and the ‘flat-rate’ income tax has been replaced by a commitment to introduce a more graduated scheme (ie, with marginal rates of 35% for income between £42,285 and £55,000, and 40% over and above that). There is a clear defence of the NHS as something that should remain free at the point of delivery, while further Private Finance Initiatives will be blocked and local authorities encouraged to buy out existing ones. New migrants will have to buy private health insurance for 5 years until they become eligible for free NHS care, and the Tories’ controversial ‘bedroom tax’ will be rescinded. These, along with other well-known promises regarding withdrawal from the EU and stricter controls on migration might well be designed to appeal to those ‘left-behinds’ who are losing faith in Labour. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that polling in Rochester suggested that 40% of those who voted Labour in the constituency in 2010 claimed an intention to vote UKIP this time – proportionately only slightly less than the 44% of Tory supporters in 2010 planning to support Reckless in the by-election.
Of course, there are good reasons why the party cannot expect to prosper as spectacularly in a General Election as in a by-election: turnout will certainly be higher overall, and that means that many somewhat disgruntled or apathetic stay-at-homes will return to the polling stations to vote for the major parties; UKIP’s still under-developed organizational resources will have to spread themselves over more than 600 constituency campaigns rather than focus on a single seat at a time; Labour may, once again, be helped by an electoral system that has been biased in its favour for the past 30 years; beyond Farage and his deputy Paul Nuttall, UKIP has few high-profile politicians that have been tried and tested in the harsh glare of national political campaigns; and the intense scrutiny of a General Election campaign is likely to highlight real challenges around policy issues.
Even so, UKIP’s growing prominence, added the Scottish National Party’s post-referendum surge in Scotland, the recent progress of the Greens in the polls – and, of course, the unpredictable impact of ‘events’ – all go to make the next General Election the most difficult to predict in the entire post-war era. Another hung parliament is certainly a distinct possibility, and the governmental outcome of such a scenario will depend entirely on the arithmetic and the strategic calculations of any party with governing or ‘blackmail’ potential. And UKIP just might be a player in that game.
Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, and co-author of ‘Why do Tories defect to UKIP? Conservative Party members and the temptations of the populist radical right’, Political Studies, 62/4 (December 2014), 961-970.