If UKIP win the European elections next month, it will be the first time in a hundred years neither Labour nor the Tories have come first in a Britain-wide election.
The establishment – from the left to the right – is already aghast at the thought. We’ve become accustomed to pragmatic and relatively centrist politics, not uncompromising populism from the Left or the Right. UKIP scares us and we feel comfortable blaming the media. Its easy to believe that if Nigel Farage were to stop being invited to BBC Question Time, UKIP support would collapse and we could go back to normality. But it won’t work like that.
If we take a step back and look at the broader political landscape, it becomes obvious this wave has been building momentum for a while. What we are seeing is a likely permanent realignment in British politics that will have huge consequences.
There are three major trends that have hastened this realignment.
Firstly, disillusionment with Labour and the Conservatives has risen to unprecedented levels in the modern era. Over 90% of Britons voted for either party just after WWII; that share fell to an all-time-low of 65% at the last election. It isn’t just the LibDems who have benefited – a vote for ‘other’ parties rose to an unprecedented 10% in 2010.
In other words a deeper sense of disillusionment with our political system has set in and not yet been reversed.
Secondly, immigration and globalisation have changed voting patterns in ways that have not yet been fully understood.
Young and urban voters, who are more comfortable with a globalised and culturally diverse world, have started moving to the Left in the UK and USA. The Labour base is now concentrated in big cities and urban areas (like Democrats), and become more liberal, while rural areas have trended more towards the right and become more anti-immigration.
This increased geographical separation between voters will also have a huge impact on our politics, like it is having in the USA.
Thirdly, conservatives have become increasingly captured by a libertarian-capitalist instinct. Fuelled by a large share of donations from the City (up from 27% to 40%), this reinforces a growing belief among voters that the Tories don’t care for people like them.
The most recent example was that of Allister Heath of City AM being appointed deputy editor at the Telegraph. Traditional one-nation Tory voices such as Charles Moore (who warned of City influence in 2011) and Peter Oborne are being marginalised by interests that want to protect globalisation, the finance industry and economic inequality. These are the interests of the top 10% and voters can see it.
The impact of all these three trends is broad and cannot simply be wished away.
UKIP have captured voters who are not that well off, hurt by growing inequality and job insecurity, and become disillusioned with the political system. The polling shows it, as does the new book Revolt on the Right.
More importantly, they don’t think the Conservatives stand for them, partly because the party is trying to neutralise its deficit with ethnic minority and urban voters, and partly because it is becoming dominated by City-friendly libertarians. As YouGov point out, UKIP have had little success with better-off voters, graduates and those under 40.
In many ways the rise of UKIP is as much to do with the financial crash of 2007 as the expenses scandal of 2009. An increasing number of Britons aren’t just pissed off with the establishment, they abhor globalisation and immigration for economic (as Owen Jones has pointed out) and social reasons.
The good news is that these events have split the Right like never before, perhaps permanently. The Labour party has avoided a split because Ed Miliband has been adept at focusing on unity above triangulation, and because anger at the Tories have united the Left. But this state of affairs may not last either.
It was widely assumed the Right had captured the public mood despite the financial crash of 2007 after winning the elections in 2010. But the full impact of major events is rarely measured in years – sometimes it plays out over decades. We are in the most turbulent time in British politics in the post-war period for good reasons.