The increasingly-likely prospect of UKIP topping the poll in this month’s European elections, says Dr Matthew Goodwin, co-author of a new book on the rise of Nigel Farage’s party, would be “the first time an outsider party has won a national election in a hundred years.” Together with Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck University and British Future Director Sunder Katwala, Dr Goodwin set out to answer some critical questions about UKIP – What is UKIP? Why are they doing so well? And what does this mean for British politics? – at a briefing event hosted by British Future, writes Henry Hill.
UKIP does not match either of the two generalisations pinned to them, being neither a simple mass of ex-Conservatives nor the ‘BNP in blazers’, according to the panel. Kaufmann focused on the BNP comparison, demonstrating that the two parties drew support from very different sociological bases: UKIP supporters tend to be older, based in rural areas and more likely to own their own home, whereas BNP supporters have tended to be younger and from more deprived backgrounds. There is also very little correlation between the pace of ethnic change in a ward and levels of UKIP support, a relationship which is very clear for the BNP.
Yet despite this, UKIP supporters are very distinct from the wider electorate on certain issues, particularly immigration. Katwala showed that 47% of their support comes from hard-line ‘rejectionists’ (who give immigration a very negative 0-1 on a 10-point scale) – a group that constitutes less than a quarter of the electorate as a whole. In comparison the three main parties all draw support from a more representative cross-section of the population: Labour and the Liberal Democrats tending to feel more comfortable with immigration while the Tories mirror national attitudes very closely.
This poses some problems for mainstream parties who want to appeal to UKIP supporters. Messages that appeal to the rejectionist minority will be a turn-off to most voters and to the parties’ existing core support. Talking to the 49% of Ukippers who are sceptical about immigration but still open to a discussion about it may be more fruitful.
UKIP has also broken out of their strictly southern, Thatcherite origins. Kaufmann showed that the party is now outperforming Labour among some of its former core of older, working class white men and those who left school at 16. Goodwin went further: “This is the most working-class electorate since Michael Foot led the Labour party,” he claimed. Despite this the party’s best prospects for local election success – and any possible Westminster breakthrough – remain in rural and suburban seats, rather than Labour’s urban heartlands.
So why are they doing so well? According to Katwala, the European elections are the ideal environment for ‘outsider party’ success: since the shift to proportional representation (PR) in the 1990s they have regularly taken around a quarter of the vote. With the Liberal Democrats no longer attractive to protest voters and the Greens pitching to young, well-educated and urban voters with no interest in UKIP, Nigel Farage’s party are particularly well-placed to make a strong showing and even top the poll. According to Goodwin, one key test will be how they fare in three regions where they have under-performed: Scotland, Wales – there they have an MEP and there are signs of momentum – and London, where they are running more local council candidates than ever before.
Yet even if UKIP do perform strongly in the European election, will it be enough to ‘break the mould’ and set Britain on the road to four-party politics? We’ll know by October, according to Goodwin. Research by British Future shows that in the three European elections fought under PR there has been a consistent pattern of strong outsider performances followed by a slump at the next general election. It is much easier to take two million votes at the Euros, argues Katwala, than to win one or two seats in a general election. The key to bucking this trend will be the local elections. UKIP are explicitly trying to emulate the old Liberal Democrat strategy of winning councillors, getting boots on the ground and laying down local roots to build up a national campaigning machine.
If UKIP manage to maintain their poll rating at around 10%, says Goodwin, it is very unlikely they will fall back to anything like the 3.1% they took in 2010. The party could do well in 2015, enough to impact the outcome of the election and force the other parties to adapt. It will fall far short, however, of Farage’s stated ambition to emulate Nick Clegg and choose the next government. According to Katwala: “He’d need 30 seats to hold the balance of power. It’s highly unlikely he’ll have more seats in the House after 2015 than the Welsh nationalists, who have three.”
Henry Hill is an intern at British Future.
Update: Dr Goodwin joins British Future again for our post-election breakfeast debrief, details of which can be found here.