Will UKIP’s bubble burst come the next general election?

Friday, November 14, 2014

 

One cannot possibly deny the fact that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has made a rapid rise, both politically and in the national consciousness, since the 2010 UK General Election. After successes at both local and European elections, politicians and political commentators alike have begun to sit up and take notice of the UKIP insurgency in British politics. Yet, a cursory view of UKIP’s electoral history suggests that success at ‘second order’ elections does not translate into a breakthrough at Westminster. This article offers five reasons as to why the UKIP star may not be shining so brightly on the morning of 8th May 2015.

 

Comfortably winning the Clacton by-election last month will undoubtedly go down in the annals of parliamentary history as a momentous result. Nevertheless, the bigger story would have been if UKIP had failed to win this seaside town. According to the academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Clacton is the most UKIP-friendly constituency in the country, containing a large concentration of what they term as ‘left behind’ voters. What’s more, the constituency also provided fertile ground for the anti-EU Referendum Party in the 1997 General Election. It is therefore not surprising that Douglas Carswell – who defected from the Conservative Party to stand as the UKIP candidate – garnered 59.75% of the vote. However, having won the seat in the excitement of a by-election, it will be interesting to see whether UKIP can retain the constituency at the next general election where voters will be faced with a choice of either a Cameron or Miliband-led government.

 

Secondly, despite polling at 15% in a recent YouGov opinion poll, the vagaries of the British electoral system will most likely restrict the party to only a handful of seats at the next general election. Put simply, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system does not reward parties who amass swathes of votes across the country, coming a very good second in many places (witness the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election where UKIP fell just 617 votes short of victory) but first in very few.

 

Equally worrying for Nigel Farage and his party is the fact that UKIP, despite their recent success, still have a problem with certain groups in society such as: women, the young, the North and Scotland, and secure professionals. For example, a recent Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday indicated that only 6.6% of those in the AB socio-economic group would consider voting for the party if a general election was held tomorrow. However, consistently performing strongly amongst older voters – who are more likely to turn out to vote than their younger counterparts – is one source of comfort for the party. Yet, long-term, as the older generation will be replaced by young, university educated and socially liberal new voters, UKIP will be forced to broaden its appeal lest face electoral extinction.

 

Perhaps the biggest factor in potentially bursting the UKIP bubble at the next general election is, ironically enough, its own success. As Goodwin recently pointed out in the Guardian, “the greater the number of Conservative defectors, the harder it becomes for Farage to present UKIP as an alternative for the disgruntled working class in northern seats like Heywood and Middleton”.[1] Moreover, the greater the number of MPs who cross the floor of the House of Commons, the greater the foothold UKIP will have in Westminster and as a result its anti-Westminster elite message will surely become less potent. Already with one MP and possibly a second later this month, the party at the next election will find itself in newfound territory – having to defend the record of its elected MPs rather than criticising the elite from the sidelines.

 

A final reason to suggest that the current hype surrounding UKIP may well be a little over-the-top is the evidence that “36% of those who voted UKIP in the European elections are already planning to abandon the party in 2015”.[2] This figure is also likely to increase further given that governing parties historically tend to regain some support as Election Day nears. Incidentally, this partly accounted for the Conservatives’ failure to win an overall majority at the last general election.

 

UKIP have certainly altered the course of political debate since 2010 and they may well indirectly impact on the result of the forthcoming general election. Yet, as has been demonstrated, one cannot rule out the possibility that history will again repeat itself and UKIP will fail to convert success at ‘second order’ elections into seats at Westminster.

 

 

By Matthew Rice

 

 

 

[1] M. Goodwin, ‘Clacton has sent the Ukip rocket into Westminster’, The Guardian, 10 October 2014.

 

[2] M. Goodwin & C. Milazzo, ‘The battle is on to poach Ukip’s voters – but they’re a loyal bunch’, The Guardian, 29 May 2014.

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