“To win new recruits, motivate their activists and sustain the interest of politicians and the media, UKIP need to overcome the wasted vote syndrome and appear as a credible choice at general elections” – Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain
UKIP’s victory in the Clacton by-election, giving the party their first MP, was bad for the political establishment.
The ComRes poll giving UKIP’s Mark Reckless a 13-point lead ahead of the Rochester by-election was awful.
But these local by-elections, history-making as they are, can only do so much damage – they give the main political parties, particularly the Tories, a black eye, and not much more. Even if UKIP go on to win the by-election in Rochester and Strood as now seems likely, Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell will still only form a caucus of two at Westminster, hardly enough to start flexing their parliamentary muscles or influencing legislation.
However, a poll just released by Opinium and The Observer reveals something that could shake the establishment to its foundations: 31% of voters would now support Nigel Farage’s party if they believed UKIP had a credible chance of winning in their local constituency. Nearly a third of the electorate are ready to wash their hands of big three political parties entirely, and vote for a new, untested alternative. Not just in the local or European elections, where UKIP are already establishing a track record of success, but in the United Kingdom’s general election next year.
The Guardian reports:
The phenomenal rise in support for Ukip is underlined by a new Opinium/Observer poll which shows almost one-third of voters would be prepared to back Nigel Farage’s party if they believed it could win in their own constituency …
When asked to respond to the statement “I would vote for Ukip if I thought they could win in the constituency I live in”, 31% of voters said they agreed. This includes 33% of Tory voters, 25% of Liberal Democrats and 18% of Labour supporters. Voters were equally divided on whether a vote for Ukip was a wasted one, with 40% saying it was, and 37% saying it was not.
British politics is rapidly approaching – or may even have already reached – a tipping point, where old certainties and assumptions (this politician isn’t serious, that issue won’t gain traction with the people, such-and-such a party will never present a credible alterative) are rendered obsolete, almost overnight. And if UKIP continue to rack up by-election victories, defections and impressive poll ratings in the coming months, all bets for the 2015 general election are off.
This is now becoming a nightmare scenario for a British political establishment that contrived to muddle along for decades without consulting the British people about the gradual but unremitting transfer of sovereignty from the national level to European institutions that are democratic in name only, and whose policies have worked to the distinct disadvantage of the bottom half of the country. And now David Cameron or Ed Miliband and the parties they lead may end up paying in a lump for the failings of an entire generation of political leaders.
The (correct) perception by voters that the old SDP-Liberal Alliance could not win locally became a self-fulfilling prophecy which ensured that party’s decline and slide into irrelevancy. And it is certainly possible that UKIP could yet follow this same trajectory – UKIP, like the old SDP, struggles with a support base widely distributed across the country, making it hard to rack up victories under the first-past-the-post electoral system. But recent evidence seems to suggest that UKIP are starting to successfully challenge this credibility issue.
The constituency of Rochester and Strood was ranked only the 271st most winnable by UKIP, and yet Conservative defector Mark Reckless now has the party in a commanding 13-point lead. A UKIP victory here will almost certainly cause many other Tories to seriously consider their own positions, and whether their chances of re-election would not be significantly higher if they, too, defected to run under the UKIP banner. And while breathless talk of a leadership challenge to David Cameron is premature, it now seems increasingly likely that several more Tory MPs will jump ship if the UKIP victory in Rochester is convincing enough. Indeed, the chances of further defections will increase exponentially with every ex-Conservative (or Labour) MP who jumps ship and survives their by-election to encourage their former colleagues from within Westminster.
But why now? Why is the floor collapsing beneath the feet of the establishment only as we approach the 2015 general election, and not in 2010, 2005 or even earlier? It’s difficult to say, but Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin point out in their book that while many other European countries (Austria, Italy, France) saw their own populist right-wing resurgences over the past decades, Britain is now overdue.
However, whereas many of the countries which saw growing support for the radical right have coalition, compromise and centrism “baked in” to their political systems, Britain’s tradition of two (or three) party politics allowed the illusion of genuine choice and ideological difference to persist, even as it became increasingly evident that both main parties had been captured by the same political class and essentially advocated the same policies, especially with regard to Europe and national sovereignty. Only following the 2010 general election and the formation of Britain’s first coalition government in recent memory was the curtain pulled back, revealing the true extent to which the main political parties think and act alike, thus explaining the explosion of support for the one party that dares to offer an alternative.
Ford and Goodwin seem to be leaning in the same direction, though they do not explicitly say as much in their book. They do, however, point out:
Politicians are generally unwilling to explain to voters that they cannot have the policies they want. Few people in politics want to admit to being powerless, particularly in issues like immigration and Europe, where many of their constituents have very strong opinions. Therefore, they often make incremental policy shifts and try to sell the as radical reforms. This, however, can backfire dramatically: if already sceptical voters feel they are being hoodwinked, such reforms can reinforce the dissatisfaction and distrust they are designed to address.
You could not write a better playbook to explain the ways that the main political parties in Britain have behaved over the past five years. Ahead of the 2010 general election, David Cameron and the Conservative Party promised to bring net immigration down to the “tens of thousands”, despite knowing full well that Britain is unable to restrict immigration from within the EU to meet such a stringent target. And only last week, Ed Miliband announced with great fanfare that Labour would bring forward a new immigration bill if elected, though hidden away in the small print was the fact that the Labour Party intends to do nothing at all about the one type of immigration (intra-EU) that most angers wavering UKIP voters.
Time and again in this age of sterilised, consensual politics, we see bold proclamations of policy and action that are almost completely divorced from what the politicians then go on to do. And what’s worse, even faced with the existential threat of UKIP, they still seem unable to imagine any other way of behaving.
If it already seems as though the establishment is panicking, a UKIP victory in Rochester plus one more parliamentary defection from either party will send them into complete meltdown. Already they are at loggerheads, with establishment darlings such as Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges huffing and puffing and slandering UKIP supporters while hypocritically urging politicians to engage the party on substance, and the Conservative and Labour party leaderships more inclined to trick the voters by copying UKIP’s language and hoping that no one notices that their same old policies remain unchanged. Neither of these strategies will deal with their UKIP problem.
A difficult conversation, left on the back burner of British political debate for too long, can and will be deferred no longer. At present, Britain’s membership of the European Union and the free movement of people within the EU only works in favour of the top half of British society – the university educated, the creative industry types, and some members of the skilled trades. And despite Will Hutton’s weak protestations to the contrary, the status quo is a net negative for the unskilled, the semi-skilled and the working poor. We cannot begin to fix the problem until we admit that there is a problem in the first place.
The challenge for the main political parties, if they want to survive past the 2015 general election, is this: find a way to make EU membership work for the bottom half of British society, and then sell it to them. If the protectionism of immigration controls is undesirable or impossible, what will Labour or the Conservatives do to equip Britain’s children and struggling adults to compete and prosper in today’s global labour market? And how will they promote and nurture a healthy sense of national identity, Britishness, amid so much change?
UKIP are prospering not because the establishment has failed to solve these challenges, but because they haven’t even tried.