Busted flush or breaking through? UKIP and the 2015 British election result

Paul Taggart

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).


The Eurosceptic paradox

The results of the European elections represented an undoubted success for Eurosceptics of all stripes. With the big advances made by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Front National (FN), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Movement 5 Star (M5S) in both vote share and seats secured, plus a host of others, there are now more sceptical, critical and generally heterodox voices than ever before.

And yet, there still remains something of a paradox. For all this strength, while it is easy to point to all these parties and to announce the breaking of a Eurosceptic dawn, there is not clarity about what that means or even if it will happen at all.

The reasons for this are threefold.

Firstly, in all the media hype, it has been largely forgotten that ‘Euroscepticism’ doesn’t really exist, at least in the sense of a coherent ideology. Euroscepticism is a manifestation of actions that are themselves ideologically driven, and there are almost as many different motivations as there are parties. The differences between Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament (EP) are as big as the range of ideologies represented in the chamber as a whole. Thus, the ex-communist left has little, or nothing to let it make common cause, with the far-right, or the conservatives, or even the liberal strand represented by AfD.

The struggles we are witnessing now to form parliamentary groups was always going to happen, especially with the fundamental cleavages on the right. With the three parties that were likely to be most successful (in seats) – the FN, UKIP and the British Conservatives – mutually excluding links with each other, the race to lure in the small parties needed to meet the country threshold has been intense.

Even if we concede that the formation of three groups on the right – far-right, Eurosceptic and conservative – is mathematically possible, then just as clearly we have to concede that they will have relatively low levels of cohesion, both internally and externally. Thus, in narrow parliamentary terms, the scope of Eurosceptics to block or even shape legislation coming through the EP will be very limited indeed.

This leads us to the second key factor, namely the other MEPs. Despite the losses suffered – especially by the EPP – the EPP-S&D centrist blocs control 55% of the votes, with ALDE adding almost another 8%. This might not be as robust as the coalitions in EPs past, but the ability to draw on past experience of centrist politics will be helpful.

Added to this is the on-going Spitzenkandidat issue. The high level of support, within the EP at least, for Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President is not only good politics by the EP, but also a vehicle for inter-group cooperation. Notably, it is the Eurosceptic parties and groups that have been least interested in this and so are less bound in.

It is not difficult to imagine a centrist coalition holding the reins of power in the EP for the next five years, regardless of whether Juncker moves into the Berlaymont. The politics of a cordon sanitaire, as practised in several member states, will be the norm, treating critical voices of any kind as being akin to far-right or fascist parties. The communautaire norms of the EP might have taken a knock with the election results, but we are much more likely to see the pursuit of pro-EU actions to ‘reconnect with the public’ than we are to see a dismantling of the system.

Those citizens then form the third key factor. While politicians and media commentators are all claiming they know what these elections ‘mean’, the truth of the matter is that such ‘meaning’ is highly elusive. Given the continuing second-order nature of EP elections, voters will have had primarily national concerns in mind: to take one small example, consider the difference successes of the FN and Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), despite their pre-election alliance.

Despite this, we have to accept that there is much discomfort within the electorate, even if it is inchoate and uneven. However, given the fractured nature of Eurosceptic representation and the likely reaction to it in the EP, it is hard to see how that will be translated into a programme of action, both either the EU or national political systems.

This is not to say that there is no regard for this, but rather that the EU as a political system is designed to build consensus for policy outputs, and the hetereogeniety of opposition and scepticism, makes it very difficult to address: addressing one issue (free movement of people, for example) will either displease sceptics of a different stripe, or be unacceptable to the broader community. Seen like this, the response of ‘more Europe’, via the Spitzenkandidat model, looks like the path of least resistance.

This is unlikely to engender a reversal of popular attitudes towards the EU, or with the democratic system more generally. While turnout might have lifted fractionally this time, the depth of disengagement seen in some countries might become a lot more common next time around.

To pull this all together, we might, therefore, consider that the greatest danger is not the election of so many Eurosceptics to the EP, but the risk that the Parliament (and the Union) can continue to function as if nothing has happened. Even if Eurosceptics are split among themselves and poorly organised, they still form a legitimate part of the body politic and deserve as much attention as any other section of society. Only with a genuine and substantial commitment to trying to engage with such voices can the Union find a way out of this situation: an ambitious demand, but surely one in keeping with the democratic mission of the EU.


Simon Usherwood

(s.usherwood@surrey.ac.uk) is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and one of the co-ordinators of the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism.