Monday, 20 April 2015

UKIP 2015: A home for political orphans?

Matt Beech discusses the rise of UKIP within the broader context of British conservatism.
  
The rise of UKIP during the 2010 parliament is the fascinating story within recent British politics. It tells a tale of unease towards widespread immigration and deep frustration at the obligations owed to the European Union (EU).  A broadly held view is that HM Government is powerless to control its borders due to the Single European Act signed by Thatcher in 1986. This speaks to the strongest reason to renegotiate EU membership - or for some - to exit and, at the same time, the Act set forth the single market which is the strongest reason to remain.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the emergence of UKIP as England’s fourth major party - with a membership of 42,000[1] - is what it tells us of the desire for a more conservative politics. This is expressed mainly by social and cultural conservative elements on both the left and right in British politics. One of the central issues in the 2015 general election campaign is the extent to which Conservatives will abandon the Conservative Party for UKIP. Or should that be the orphaning of Conservatives by the party leadership? In smaller numbers, conservative socialists may stay at home, or protest by voting UKIP.

In The Conservative-Liberal Coalition: Examining the Cameron-Clegg Government, I argue in my opening essay, that the ideology of the Coalition is more liberal than conservative.[2] In the essay I provide evidence to support the main planks of the Conservative-led Coalition’s liberalism and then postulate what an authentic conservative policy agenda would look like in contemporary British politics.

The liberal conservatism of Cameron[3] and his supporters has been the leading expression of the Parliamentary Conservative Party since his election as leader in December 2005. And yet, Cameron has not been a successful party leader by conventional standards. He failed to win an absolute majority in 2010 and if the polls are correct (and, in an election as tight as this one, that is a rather big ‘if’) he will likewise fail on 7th May 2015. Meaning the last time the most electorally successful British political party secured an outright general election victory was 1992.

If that was not difficult enough, the five year ideological marriage to the Liberal Democrats, albeit with Orange Book liberals in Cabinet, has reinforced the view that there has been a diminution of conservatism in the Conservative Party’s platform. Economic liberalism is an essential tenet of British conservatism and has been since Thatcher but, many party activists and supporters dislike the social liberalism of the Cameron years and, are uneasy with foreign policy liberalism in the form of humanitarian intervention. For these voters they see little that is distinct from the metropolitan left.

If a sizable proportion of social conservatives voters opt for UKIP across England, the likelihood of a majority Conservative government becomes at best slender and at worst impossible due to the first-past-the-post electoral system.  However, given the incumbency factor coupled with the prospect of another hung parliament and five further years of negotiated coalition, disaffected social conservatives may stick with Cameron.  As a liberal, this must be his hope.

UKIP are polling at 13%[4] and have struggled somewhat during the election campaign as their policies and candidates have faced greater scrutiny from the press and their rivals. If Nigel Farage fails to win South Thanet the future direction of UKIP is anyone’s guess. That said, a handful of parliamentary seats would be a notable success. UKIP’s expanding membership list and consistently strong polling numbers denote a solid degree of support from disaffected Conservative supporters. But in certain quarters of the left - typically marked by unemployment, low pay and stiff competition for jobs from recent waves of immigration - there is support for UKIP.  Also, in communities outside of England’s largest urban centres, where more traditional social values quietly continue, there might well be a transfer of electoral allegiance from Labour to UKIP as a protest against the prevailing forces of market and moral liberalism. The problem for Ed Miliband is that those considering deserting Labour for UKIP are more culturally conservative than Labour wishes to be. These voters are not part of the ‘progressive alliance’.

Both sets of political orphans quite correctly believe that the main parties desire their vote but oppose their social values, and so, UKIP seems to be the most likely destination for their vote.  However, there is a cautionary note for such political orphans: UKIP’s 2015 manifesto[5] whilst conservative in many areas also contains anti-socialist and libertarian politics, a likely turn-off for erstwhile Labour and Conservative supporters respectively. For social conservatives of both major parties the general election offers them no genuine political home. 

Matt Beech is Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull.




[1] R. Keen (2015) Membership of UK Political Parties, Standard Note SN/SG/5125, London: House of Commons Library, 30th January,  www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05125.pdf
[2] M. Beech (2015) ‘The Ideology of the Coalition: More Liberal Than Conservative’ in (eds.) M. Beech and S. Lee, The Conservative-Liberal Coalition: Examining the Cameron-Clegg Government (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 1-15.
[3] For example see, D. Cameron (2006) ‘A new approach to foreign affairs – liberal conservatism’, Speech to the British American Project, 11 September and D. Cameron (2007) ‘A Liberal Conservative Consensus to Restore Trust in Politics’, Speech in Bath, 22nd March.
[4] M. Ashcroft (2015) ‘Ashcroft National Poll: Con 33%, Lab 33%, Lib Dem 9%, UKIP 13%, Green 6%’,
[5] UKIP (2015) Believe in Britain: UKIP Manifesto 2015, http://www.ukip.org/ukip_manifesto_summary

1 comment:

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