Last week I wrote about the potential impact of UKIP on the Tories. This week I wanted to reflect more generally on the causes of the UKIP phenomenon and the significance of it.
I don’t believe UKIP is a flash in the pan that will disappear when the binary choice of a General Election presents itself. Sure, they are always going to get squeezed when people have to pick a Prime Minister, and will be less appealing in an election for Westminster than one specifically about Europe. But the idea that they will be back at the 3.1% they scored in the 2010 General Election in the 2015 one is delusional.
A lot has changed since then. In the 2009 Euro Elections they won 16.5% of the vote. The latest polls suggest they are on track for 29%, nearly double that. In terms of Westminster voting intention they are on 15%, whereas in 2009 they were on 6%.
Assuming a similar relationship between their opinion poll scores and Euro election support and their subsequent General Election score at the equivalent stage in the electoral cycle in 2009 and now, it looks like they are heading for at least a doubling of their 2010 General Election score to 6% or more in 2015.
They are also beginning to build votes in different sets of elections in the cycle, not just the Euros. Last year they got 22% in the local government elections, which are nothing to do with Europe. This indicates there are a growing cadre of voters who don’t just pick UKIP once every five years as a protest about Europe but are starting to vote for them at every level, year in year out. Eventually a slice of those people will just continue that pattern in General Elections as well because it has become the norm for them.
Success in council elections is helping UKIP to build a constituency infrastructure too. They won 147 councillors last year, and will win more this year, and there is a proven relationship between having incumbent councillors to lead campaigning and success in other levels of election. Generally their infrastructure is improving, for instance they have shop-front offices in many towns, and are increasingly able to field large numbers of council candidates even where they have no chance of winning seats. Whilst they still don’t seem to have even a rudimentary process for vetting candidates (so the media and rival parties find their racist tweets before UKIP does), being able to run large numbers of candidates indicates you have a large number of members willing to stand and a network of election agents able to do the basic legal aspects of the role to get them nominated. UKIP’s campaign literature that I have seen looks increasingly sophisticated, with high production standards and a professionally conveyed message. Some of this machine comes from people previously outside politics who are new to electioneering, but a good deal of it comes from Tory defectors who know what they are up to because a major party trained them.
This is a party which for all its flaws has its tail up, is receiving massive media coverage (my guess is some of the negative coverage looks like bullying of amateurs/outsiders and will backfire as it reinforces the narrative of a conspiratorial pro-EU political and media elite) and is being seen as a legitimate choice to be considered by a growing section of the electorate.
As well as predicting that they will get at least 6% in 2015 I think they will be in contention to run the Tories close and maybe even snatch some wins in half a dozen east coast constituencies, particularly in Kent and Lincolnshire. Even if they don’t win, this will pin down Tory resources. The hysteria being generated amongst every Tory MP whose seat Nigel Farage flirts with running in is not to be underestimated.
Why has UKIP got it itself into such a strong position?
I don’t think it’s good enough to say it’s all about racism. It is now proven, because they are being exposed by the media and online, that a remarkable number of UKIP’s candidates and activists are idiotic racists and bigots. But not every UKIP candidate and activist is a racist, and I don’t believe the majority of their 29% Euro election support are. We have a big problem as a country if they are.
My contention is that there are legitimate reasons why people choose to vote UKIP and we need to combat them as a party with reasoned arguments, alternative answers to the political concerns UKIP is claiming to address, and good campaigning, not just mockery and exposure of their extremist underbelly.
Some of these reasons are the ones I set out last week and are primarily the fault of the Tory Party, who are now reaping the whirlwind they sowed. The Tories stoked up Euro-scepticism and fear of immigration in the 1990s and 2000s when they had nothing else in their policy cupboard because their own period in government had ended so badly and Blair’s answers to most domestic questions were popular and worked. Then in government they have failed to live up to their rhetoric either because they never meant to or because of the compromises of coalition, and disillusioned voters have turned to UKIP to give them what they thought the Tories were meant to be offering.
But other groups of voters have moved to UKIP. People who haven’t voted since the post-1997 collapse in turnout because they are turned off by politics and politicians and like Farage the anti-politician and his amateur army. Labour core voters who are suffering economically and for whom the linkage of this to immigration and by extension EU free movement of labour laws makes sense. People who might previously have looked to the Lib Dems as an anti-system party but who now see it in government as as bad as the main two parties.
Being concerned about the erosion of national sovereignty by the EU is a legitimate concern. An elite in some other EU member states actually does believe the rhetoric about “an ever closer union” and sees nation states as an anachronism that will wither on the vine. The fact that the Scots aren’t even sure they want to stay in the UK, and the rest of the UK respects their right to democratically self-determine whether they do or not, suggests that the nation state as a concept still has a good few centuries left in it, and that people’s gut instinct is that they want to be governed by a political entity that they can identify with and that has some shared values, history and concept of citizenship. That is more likely to be a nation state than to be the EU. That means that if we are going to convince people to hand over limited areas of sovereignty to a supranational institution like the EU we need to be very clear about what the benefits are for ordinary citizens, policy by policy, and about what the red lines are where national sovereignty is inviolable. Guff about “an ever closer union” needs to end. Where we do hand over powers they shouldn’t be to an unaccountable transnational bureaucratic elite but to elected representatives who are accountable at the ballot box.
The benefits of the EU are self-evident in the fields of economic prosperity and growth, social and employment standards, ability to compete as a single market with China, India and the USA, let alone the way in which a continent that was almost constantly at war for centuries now resolves its differences at boring committee meetings. But most people have never been told any of this in any communication by the mainstream parties. The basic arguments are hardly ever made, allowing the only pro-EU voices to be loudly heard to be idiotic federalists in Brussels with their “ever closer union” mantra, who probably are completely unrepresentative of the citizenry of Milan, Marseilles or Munich, let alone their counterparts in Maidstone or Margate who they are blithely herding towards UKIP, and Nick Clegg. Allowing Nick Clegg, the most discredited politician in Britain, to take on Farage as the voice of pro-EU opinion…words fail me. We need to be taking him on, not leaving it to the failed leader of a rump party.
It’s also legitimate for ordinary people to worry that the political system has failed them. On many levels it has. We have suffered a longer period of austerity after the crash than most countries. The recovery is an unfair one where middle income people, let alone the poor, are suffering a cost of living crisis. Basic commodities like energy and housing cost more than people can afford. People worry their kids won’t do as well as they have done. People worry how the UK will earn its way in the world when new economic (and potentially military and geopolitical) superpowers are emerging very rapidly. When Nigel Farage tells them all this is because of uncontrolled immigration and that has been imposed on us by the EU, that understandably makes sense.
Labour has a tactical, campaigning response to beating UKIP that was proven to work in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. But I am not sure we have fully rolled out our strategic response that will win voters from UKIP because their minds change, rather than just out-organising them in Get Out The Vote.
We need to continue to make the very clear and radical policy proposals that Ed Miliband has started with the energy price freeze and announcement on rents that show there are answers to the crisis people face that aren’t just rightwing populism.
We need a clearer stance on what the rules are we will set around immigration.
We need to articulate a position on Europe that is common sense – that we will set limits to erosion of national sovereignty but not throw the baby out with the bathwater and risk our economic future away from the EU like UKIP or the Tory right would.
Above all we need to be able to demonstrate empathy with the kind of people who are voting UKIP. If we want them to vote for the social democratic left not the populist right we can’t sneer and laugh at them or write off millions of people as prejudiced, we need to understand their concerns and set out a better way of addressing them than UKIP can.
If we don’t do that, one day Mr Farage will have the last laugh.