Friday, 16 May 2014

How significant is UKIP's rise?

John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde presents an insightful evaluation of the rise of UKIP.

The success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in last year’s English local elections – winning a fifth of all votes cast and nearly 150 local council seats – led me to describe the party’s rise at the time as ‘the most serious independent minority party incursion in post-war English politics’. But how does that challenge look twelve months on, as Britain gets ready to go to the polls again on May 22nd in elections for both the European Parliament and for many of England’s more urban councils?

We might have anticipated that the party’s challenge would have wilted under the spotlight of media scrutiny that electoral success has inevitably brought. There have certainly been plenty of attempts to ‘dig up the dirt’ about the party, including allegations about how the party leader, Nigel Farage MEP, uses his European Parliament expense allowance, widespread reporting of another MEP’s use of a derogatory term to refer to women, and the highlighting of remarks in candidate leaflets, party posters and social media postings as allegedly ‘racist’.

However, it has all proven to be like water off a duck’s back. After reaching a high of 15% in Westminster vote intentions in the immediate wake of its success in last year’s local elections (based on the average of the figures from the four most regular pollsters) the party has consistently registered around 11% of the vote since last summer.  Meanwhile the last month has seen its support rise once again to 13% - thanks not least it seems to the success of Nigel Farage in outpointing the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, in a couple of televised debates between them on Europe.

We should not be surprised that this unfavourable publicity has had little impact. UKIP’s electorate – attracted to the party at least as much by its tough stance on immigration as its views about Europe – comes primarily from a relatively socially conservative section of the British electorate, people who perhaps feel left behind by the social changes going on around them. Recent polls show the party doing twice as well (18%) amongst the over 65s as amongst the under 35s (8%), scoring more highly amongst less affluent and less well educated ‘C2DE’ voters, and better amongst men than amongst women. Such voters are probably less likely to be affronted by politically incorrect language than the average university educated journalist.

More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the party’s support has withstood the return of a degree of optimism in both the real and the subjective British economy. After all, the party’s rise began in the spring of 2012, when confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to preside competently over the economy was dented by what came to ne known as an ‘omnishambles’ Budget, a number of whose measures had to be dropped within weeks of their announcement.  The party’s support comes disproportionately (albeit far from exclusively) from those who say they voted Conservative in 2010. Indeed, no less than two-thirds of those who voted Conservative in 2010 but have subsequently switched parties now say they would vote UKIP. Surely we would anticipate that the promise of an improving economy would see these voters return to the Conservative fold?

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, however, that promise has yet to reach UKIP’s older, less affluent electorate.  According to Ipsos MORI’s most recent poll, while 34% of UKIP supporters think Britain’s economy will get better during the next twelve months, almost as many, 33%), think it will get worse. That ‘net optimism’ of +1, is even lower than the equivalent figure for Labour supporters (+7) let alone those still faithful to the Tories (+74).  Equally recent YouGov polls find that UKIP supporters are as least as pessimistic as Labour supporters when asked about the prospects for their own household finances during the next twelve months. It looks as though the economic recovery will need to penetrate more deeply before it is likely to tempt many a UKIP voter back into the Tory fold.

Meanwhile, more immediately, the Euro elections on 22nd May provide the party with a perfect environment in which to prosper.  ‘Second order’ elections as they are, voters have long demonstrated a much greater propensity to vote for smaller parties in Euro elections than they would on any other occasion. The party won as much as 16-17% of the vote in Britain at both the last two Euro-elections in 2004 and 2009, at a time when the party was far less popular than it is currently. It seems to be close to double that figure in this year’s election, enough to give it a fighting chance of emerging with the largest share of the vote. Five polls of European voting intentions published so far this month on average put UKIP on 29%, narrowly ahead of Labour on 28%, while the Conservatives trail on 22%. Although the party is unlikely to do that well in the local elections (not least because all of London, where UKIP is less popular, will be voting) previous experience suggests that having local elections on the same day as Euro elections helps boost UKIP’s local vote.

Once this month’s elections are over, with the prospect that electoral success will give the party a further boost in the polls, the crucial question will be how successful UKIP will be in retaining support in the twelve months leading up to next year’s general election. Hitherto, like all small parties UKIP has found it much more difficult to get voters to support them in a general election than in local or European elections, while the single member plurality electoral system is particularly unforgiving on the party’s largely geographically evenly spread support. However, new evidence from the British Election Study suggests that the party’s vote may prove more difficult to squeeze this time around. The traditional party of protest, the Liberal Democrats, remains both unpopular and in government – indeed UKIP’s rise is in part at least one of the unintended consequences of the formation of Britain’s first post-war coalition. Meanwhile, fewer voters than ever feel a sense of identity with any political party and even in 2010 a record proportion voted for someone other than one of the three Westminster parties.  English politics seem unlikely to return to ‘normal’ any time soon.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and President of the British Politics Group


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