The 2015 UK general election result for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may look as if the spectacular coverage of the party and the predictions for its impact during the campaign were overblown. The party attained only one MP and the Conservative Party managed to pull a parliamentary majority out of the bag, against all expectations. UKIP compounded the turmoil of the post-election period with the resignation and un-resignation of its leader, Nigel Farage. At the same time, the mantle of the new challenger on the block clearly went to the Scottish National Party (SNP) which arrived in Westminster with 56 MPs. But we need to be very careful not to write UKIP off as a busted flush. In a number of ways UKIP was highly successful in 2015 and we need to not lose sight of this.
UKIP’s vote share was 12.6% with nearly 4 million voters. Most importantly, this means that UKIP is now the UK’s third party in terms of the electorate. Its vote share increased more than any of the other party with a rise of 9.5%. The compares with nearly 1.5 million votes for the SNP. And the SNP were the fourth largest party with 7.9% of the vote and nearly 2.5 million voters. And UKIP came second in 120 constituencies. The simple fact is that the vagaries, or more accurately the specificities, of a single-member plurality electoral system mean that, as Liberal Democrats have always known, large dispersed electoral support is not worth as much as smaller concentrated vote shares. The SNP won 56 MPs by winning a plurality in 56 Scottish constituencies but not even standing in 593 constituencies. Whatever Westminster holds, Britain now has a party system in the electorate that places a right-wing populist party right at the heart of the party system.
During the campaign, it was sometimes easy to forget that UKIP was formed as a ‘hard’ Eurosceptic party, campaigning for British withdrawal from the EU. The focus on immigration and on the control of immigration came to the fore and party political broadcasts for UKIP failed sometimes to even mention Europe. But the linkage between the issues of immigration and Europe were foremost in the thinking of Farage and the party. The inability to control borders and immigration were linked to the UK’s membership of the EU, it was time and time again asserted by Farage. And even if we are to think of the two issues as decoupled, for voters the support for a party portraying itself as against the establishment on immigration and Europe come from the same fundamental well-spring. UKIP’s profile has always been more of a populist Eurosceptic force than as a Eurosceptic party that happens to be populist. The focus on immigration has policy links to the EU issue but it has populist sources deeply embedded in this anti-establishment party of the right. In this sense it is much more realistic to view UKIP as part of wave of populist parties in Europe that mobilise around different issues (immigration, regionalism, corruption and Euroscepticism) depending on the context in which they find themselves.
Keeping in mind the level of support, and looking at other populist parties across Europe, it is clear that, however low the supply of UKIP MPs is, the demand in the electorate for a party of this nature is both significant and unlikely to dissipate. The party faces a challenge in how it reacts to the failure to break into Westminster but we should not underestimate the on-going challenge that the party represents for the British party system.
The up-coming referendum on UK membership of the EU is not only largely a consequence of UKIP but it will also provide an important arena on which the party can mobilise. The commitment made by Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron in January 2013 to an EU membership referendum was an attempt to both manage internal divisions within his party over Europe, but also represented a strategy to remove support for UKIP as a challenger for traditional Conservative voters. Now, sitting on a Conservative parliamentary majority, Cameron may well see this as a success but it is also a key goal for UKIP and, therefore, in this one way, the election was a score for Farage.
Europe is set to be the subject of fierce debate in the next year or so in the UK as the country heads towards the membership referendum. If the outcome is ‘Brexit’, UKIP will have achieved their core mission. If the outcome is to stay in the UK, the issue will not disappear. If we have learned one thing from the Scottish referendum, it is that a vote for the status quo on a divisive issue with a challenger party capturing the opposite position is a recipe for continuing the vitality and salience of that issue. The election result for UKIP shows them as a major party in the UK electorate. The impact of UKIP on British politics and, potentially, on the politics of the EU should not be underplayed.
Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendum Network (EPERN) and Co-Director of the Sussex European Institute (SEI).