Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 41 – July 2013

The significance of UKIP

In ‘The forward march of Europe halted’ (Update number 34, January 2012) I noted that attitudes to the EU were emerging as a new line of political division in Britain – a line potentially as significant as religion or class had been in the past. The rise of UKIP is one sign of this. That rise apparently continues: in the local elections fought in May 2013 the party won 140 seats and gathered 25 per cent of the votes in the wards where it was standing. David Cameron’s promise in January 2013 to hold a referendum on membership of the Union after the next election was designed to fend off UKIP’s challenge; electoral history since then shows that this tactic has failed. But the very fact of UKIP’s continued rise suggests, paradoxically, that it may have a future less bright than its supporters imagine. The failure of the Conservatives to counter the challenge despite moving sharply to a UKIP like posture on Europe suggests that UKIP is tapping into forces and feelings that transcend the issue of EU membership. It has been hard to probe the nature of UKIP support because, while it has grown, the party still commands only a minority among voters. As a result, only small numbers turn up in conventional national polls. But in a recent Guardian article Peter Kellner has amalgamated a set of YOUGOV polls to generate numbers sufficient to allow analysis (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/05/ukip-supporters-less-rightwing-than-tories) .
It turns out to be true that a majority of UKIP supporters are Conservative switchers, but significant minorities are also drawn from former Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. The demographic and class composition of the UKIP vote, though, is even more significant. UKIP is supported by men, by older voters and by poorer voters. We know that the old two-party system, where the overwhelming majority supported either Conservative or Labour, has been decaying for a generation. But we also know that this decay has been greatest among young, new voters. What the rise of UKIP suggests is that decay has now set in at the core foundations of the traditional two-party system, among older voters. The rise of UKIP thus signifies, not so much a short term revolt about Europe, but the final dissolution of two-party politics in Britain. (There is a summary of the changing electorate on pp. 300-4 of Politics and Governance in the UK.)

It is easy to see why this is such bad news for the Conservatives and for Labour. But why might it not be such good news for UKIP? Much of the comment on the rise of UKIP, like commentary on the rise of earlier ‘challenging’ parties, like the Social Democrats in the 1980s, has been premised on the assumption that they will permanently displace some existing force, like the Liberal Democrats. But that is to misread the character of the British electorate now. There is no solid foundation of support for any political party in England, and the demography of UKIP support shows that that the last pillar of stability, the older voter, is now decaying. What UKIP can expect, therefore, are surges of support which just as quickly die away. There is some sign of this volatility already: a Guardian ICM Poll of 11 June 2013 indicated that support had dropped six points in a month, to 12 per cent, the same level as that of the Liberal Democrats. This is not to say that UKIP is destined to die. In Scotland, the case of the SNP shows that a party that fashions a support base around national identity can create a stable electoral foundation. Fashioning itself as the party of English identity (it already does poorly in Scotland and Wales) may be UKIP’s best long term strategy. In widening its range of policies to include such areas as immigration it is plainly already attempting this task.