The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are the sensation de-jour garnering Tory defectors and increasing their support in the polls to become the de-facto ‘Fourth Party’. A group of erstwhile misfits dismissed as ‘fruitcakes’ only one election ago is now climbing ascendant. They are causing major disruption to the electoral calculus of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They are making the political weather and look set to do so for much of the run up to the next General Election. Where lies the appeal in this quixotic party, hitting 15% in general polling, capable of holding the seats of defecting Conservatives at opportunistically called by-elections and maybe gaining even more in 2015?
Their main asset is their leader. Nigel Farage, a populist ‘anti-politician’, is seen by his supporters as a plain-speaking, anti-establishment man of the people. He is fluent in ‘plainmanspeak’, (despite being a pin-striped former ‘City’ worker), a language most politicians spend a lifetime trying to perfect. He addresses valid questions about democratic deficits in the European project; his solutions would not be the preferred options for most rational analysts, but he is right to question a drift away from subsidiarity towards the centre. Europe – the leaving of or staying in – will be a huge issue in the 2015 election.
Farage and UKIP have had several successes; the principal among these has been to put the Conservatives on the back foot over an in-or-out EU referendum. Cameron has been forced into a path that may see Britain out of Europe for a generation; if, and it’s a big if, the Tories win in 2015, and are unable to get their negotiated concessions from Brussels, then they’ll be leading the campaign for a ‘No’ vote. This would be manna from heaven for UKIP and Farage will not be overly disappointed with the unlikely event of a Conservative majority nextyear. Nigel Farage can see himself as the leader who brought Britain out of Europe; for good or ill, that would be an historic legacy.
But Farage is a typical politician in that he wants power; he’ll be planning for scenarios where UKIP hold the balance of power after the next election. He knows he can rely on the support of the increasingly jingoistic red-tops; Cameron is as loathed as Miliband by some of the Tory-supposed Fleet Street friends. His ambition is to be kingmaker; he knows (surely?) that he’ll never be Prime Minister but he can help build the next government and shape policy if his party picks up the 30-35 seats that the most optimistic predictions are saying they will. Or he can just turn the screw until April and force the Conservatives and Labour to harden their positions on Europe; total victory would be in getting Miliband to cave in to referendum demands.
There is a ceiling in the UKIP vote; they are developing saner policies in other areas, but they are still seen by most voters as a two trick pony, obsessed with ‘Europe’ and Immigration at the expense of bread and butter issues. If they are to be a successful catch-all party as opposed to a niche acquired taste, they will need to be more subdued about their rasion d’etre. But if they do dampen down the populism and become more generalist, they run the risk of losing their core support. We may already have reached ‘peak Farage’.
He still has to purge his party of the racists if he is to be taken more seriously. His economic polices are barely coherent and he really needs to raise the calibre of his spokespeople to grow his support. Some of UKIP’s ‘Front Bench’ are woefully unsuited to national politics (and dim to boot) and the party is still seen as racist by most ethnic voters. Having a ‘humorous’ song done calypso-style which jokes about immigration is woefully inappropriate for a serious political party. If they are serious, they can not align themselves with neo-nazi apologists in the European Parliament.
If UKIP can keep piling up the by-election coups – and there’s no sign in any let up with the Tory defection rate – they can keep up their progress right up until the general election. Farage is nothing if not a fighter and he will relish being the centre of attention over the next few months. If the new intakes like Douglas Carswell can defer to their General, he will continue to be the prime mover in his party.
UKIP were a joke of a political party in the 1990s. They are in the Poujadist tradition; Farage’s statements on integration and race are in some ways less insidious than the Tory dog-whistle ones; you know what you’re getting with him, however depressing and ‘Little England’ it might be. While the main parties will be saying ‘Vote Farage and you get Miliband/Cameron’, maybe when you vote Farage, that’s who you’ll get. For his heartland supporters, he is the heir to the Thatcher mantle, not Cameron.