The UKIP question

08/05/2013  -  10.20

Michael Cunningham, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Politics Award Leader

The major talking point of the 2013 local elections was the rise of UKIP which gained 25% of the vote and has given rise to much speculation about the reasons for their success and their likely future impact.

UKIP has reaped the benefits of international and national events and has also been helped by contingent factors. In many countries, the international financial crisis and the associated austerity measures have given a boost to self-styled `anti-establishment’ or `outsider’ parties of which UKIP is one. 

In the national context, UKIP’s rise can be viewed against a backdrop of cynicism about the political `establishment’ fuelled by the expenses scandal, the main parties’ positions on Europe, and the perceived `softness’ on immigration underpinned by Labour’s miscalculation about the number of Polish immigrants last decade.

I would argue that Europe is particularly beneficial for UKIP because both main parties are disingenuous about the topic; they have consistently accepted the technocratic or functional argument for integration while engaging in domestic ‘Eurosceptic’ rhetoric to appease their electorates. Mrs Thatcher was one of the worst offenders; however, other Conservative and Labour leaders have also indulged in this practice.

A contingent factor in their favour is that because the Liberal Democrats are in the governing coalition, they are not the current recipients of protest votes which are now largely being given to UKIP.  The other factor which has helped them is the weakness of the British left.

In previous eras, one might have expected an international capitalist crisis or disillusionment with the “establishment” to have benefited the left. However, ideologically and organisationally the British left is very weak, as evidenced by the fact that its best-known figure is probably the self-regarding reality TV "star", George Galloway.

Social science tends to have a poor predictive record so I may be proved wrong. However, there are two reasons why UKIP’s rise might be checked. First, in relation to the next general election, the `first past the post’ system may encourage those who supported UKIP in the recent local election to vote Conservative, for fear of splitting the right-wing, anti-Labour vote.

Second, once an `outsider’ party gains seats, at whatever level of government, it has to do things and make decisions.  The facile adoption of anti-establishment purity no longer works.  This was graphically illustrated when the British National Party (BNP) gained local authority seats and demonstrated itself to be full of incompetents.

This is not to say that UKIP’s politics are identical; however the BNP employed a similar rhetoric of `outsider’ status. UKIP’s recent confusion and disarray over policy detail and the costing of policy suggests that it is not a credible party of government; there is more to government than being viscerally anti-European and being in favour of smoking in pubs.

Lastly, political realignments are very rare in English politics, though less so in British politics. It is nearly a century since the emergence of a new major force when the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as a governing party in English (and British) politics. Therefore, it would be a major surprise if UKIP emerged as a potential party of government.