UKIP & Douglas Carswell’s victory in the Clacton by-election, on the Essex coast, with a 60% share of the vote, was almost certainly a reflection of his own popularity as an MP, rather than that of the party he is fighting for.
Conversely, however, Labour’s tiny majority of 617 seats in the constituency of Heywood & Middleton (in Greater Manchester) fundamentally highlights the cross-spectrum appeal of UKIP – Farage’s party has now become a significant political force in Britain today. Now that they have gained their first seat in the House of Commons, is the stage set for, in Nigel Farage’s words, a ‘shift in tectonic plates of British politics’?
If history has taught us one thing, it is that, in order to be a successful leader, you need to have charisma. Tony Blair had copious amounts of this asset when he became Prime Minister in 1997, and returned Labour to government after 18 years. Fast-forward to 2014, however, and it would be a fair to conclude that the Labour Party is leading – just – into the final furlong of the election race despite the ineffectiveness of their jockey, Ed Miliband. A poor performance, especially considering the relative unpopularity of the Coalition.
But what do the fortunes of Ed Miliband have to do with UKIP?
Essentially, the leadership of Ed Miliband is the antithesis of the leadership of Nigel Farage. In the same way Labour’s vote in the opinion polls is holding up despite their party leader, UKIP’s vote has increased dramatically despite the scandals and scrutiny to have hit the party. Farage’s efforts to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’ has certainly convinced many voters. The oft-quoted images of Farage at the pub, with a pint in hand, resonates far more with many in the British electorate than any image of Cameron, Clegg or Miliband. The fact of the matter is this: the general public relate more with those who seem most like them, and Farage is certainly utilising this fact well.
“I’m just an ordinary chap who wants change”Nigel FarageUKIP Leader (07/10/2014)
You just have to glance at the latest opinion polls – ukpollingreport.co.uk does a fantastic job of collating the latest of these – to see the impact that Farage’s leadership has had on the political outlook in Britain, especially when comparing the results of the 2010 General Election (UKIP’s share of the vote then was 3.1%, now it looks to be on course to reach 14-15%, if not higher). Indeed, Farage’s popularity is such that, when he does step down as leader of UKIP, one has to wonder whether the party can sustain a semblance of their political popularity.
The rise of UKIP is not totally as a result of Farage’s accomplishments as leader, what has really changed between 2010 and now to have increased the popularity of UKIP so much?
The common line in the media is that UKIP utilises unfortunate and disappointing political/economic news for its own benefit. Certainly, Nigel Farage’s blaming of Labour’s ‘political correctness’ in response to the Rotherham child abuse scandal unquestionably further fuels this notion.
However, the British economy is on course to be the fastest-growing economy in the G7, which is especially positive compared to the news that the economy was, at the end of 2010, contracting by 0.5%.
“The US and UK in particular are leaving the crisis behind and achieving decent growth”Olivier BlanchardChief Economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (06/10/2014)
Whilst it is unquestionably the case that people are still feeling the economic pinch, the fact that UKIP were struggling to reach half the levels of popularity seen today, despite less favourable economic conditions for – if you follow the standard hypothesis that UKIP draws their political capital from disappointment, them to exploit – shows that the level of concern demonstrated by a significant proportion of the British public which drew them to UKIP in certainly not based wholly on the economic situation that the UK has been in, and that sentiment runs far deeper than economic periods of prosperity and decline, where you would traditionally expect ‘alternative’ political parties to flourish in their popularity.
Social issues then, are certainly where UKIP is making strong political headway. Concerns over immigration, Europe, wages, welfare & crime combined with UKIP’s stance on these issues do have inherent support from all sides of the political spectrum In this sense, UKIP are not a traditional ‘right-wing’ party, despite being characterised that way, although the left/right political divide is a folly – politics is far more complicated than a simple division.
One only has to note the result in Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester, a safe Labour seat where ‘right-wing’ parties have been met with disaffection. UKIP have argued effectively over these important social issues and the increased publicity partly as a result of the European by-elections of earlier this year have only served to further the UKIP cause. Indeed, sentiment over the problems of the EU and, in certain urban areas, the perceived impact of unrestricted EU immigration, have played into the hands of UKIP, as their policies on these issues show clear differences between the other three main political parties.
Perhaps overshadowing all of these areas of concern, however, is the ‘protest’ aspect of the vote. The popularity of the traditional three main Westminster parties has never been lower – consistent ‘broken promises’, and an ‘out-of-touch’ government & opposition again have further increased and accelerated the level of support towards UKIP. Their effective marketing as a party of disillusionment, further assisted by high-profile defections, has been critical to their popularity amongst voters. David Cameron’s famous ‘fruitcakes’ comment is a prime example displaying the ignorance and dismissive attitude of Westminster to some voters’ concerns. Indeed, exclusion of UKIP from the forthcoming election debates next year can only lead to further accusations of an out-of-touch Westminster elite.
“UKIP are a bunch of…… fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”David CameronPrime Minister (04/04/2006)
Looking ahead to the 2015 General Election, we have to note that last nights elections were only by-elections, where the turn-out is historically lower than usual. The 2015 General Election is only 7 months away, the short-term results of these by-elections inevitably leads to a greater chance of a ‘protest’ vote. Indeed, if UKIP matched the swing of 60% in Clacton across the country next year, they would win all 650 seats!
Despite this, UKIP’s policies, whether or not we agree with them, have struck a chord with vast swathes of the voting public. Indeed, if Farage was to be included in the TV debates, his prowess as a communicator and highly charismatic persona would seemingly only serve to increase the UKIP vote. The first-past-the-post system, means UKIP would not gain the number of seats in proportion to its projected share of the vote. Whilst they may not turn out to hold the balance of power in 2015, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, if UKIP attain the percentage of votes projected by the latest opinion polls then the British political outlook will be fundamentally changed.
The rise of UKIP has been met with claims from the three main Westminster parties that the party’s whole political strategy is inherently negative, playing on disillusionment and fear (mainly that of immigration) whilst promising to reach out further to these disillusioned voters. However, the outcome of the Clacton by-election, where UKIP gained their first MP, and Heywood & Middleton, where a ‘safe’ Labour seat almost changed hands, shows fundamentally that the 2015 election will be unique in that at least four main parties will seriously contest the outcome, and that the promises of change made by the three main parties have not reached many in the electorate.
If the main political parties were to take any lessons from the outcome of these by-elections, it is that words coming out from an anonymous party spokesman is not enough, the electorate need to be shown clearly what Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are going to do to ensure that this level of disillusionment with Westminster is not seen again. It is a shame that it has taken the rise of UKIP to make this issue apparent. The forthcoming by-election in Rochester will provide a further indication of the extent as to which UKIP’s threat is to the three main traditional Westminster parties.