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Growing Pains

Britain’s UKIP raises the question: Can an anti-political party ever be a political success?

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By TED R. BROMUND
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But UKIP is its own worst enemy. To his credit, Farage has stayed clear, as Goodwin acknowledges, of Powell’s rhetoric and the extremist territory of the BNP, and UKIP has refused to form ties with the French National Front. Its problems are not ideological, but political and structural. After a day of canvassing around Lewes, every single UKIP supporter I had met conformed to the stereotype: male, white, older, Tory-leaning, and on the border between working and middle class. The Conservative party of Margaret Thatcher commanded that vote—and it could do so again, if it did its job—but that is a limited constituency.

More fundamentally, UKIP is also trapped by its own appeal and sincere self-definition as an antipolitical pressure party. Time and again, UKIP activists privately bemoaned the party’s factionalism, and its amateurism on matters of both organization and policy. But to mature as a party is to become what they genuinely dislike, and might damage their everyman appeal. It also risks exposing the cleavage between its younger activists—who incline towards libertarianism—and its older supporters, who dislike mass immigration in part because they believe it means the British state has less money to spend on social services for them. The more the party takes votes from Labour, the worse that tension will become.

Nor is it clear how UKIP will do what political parties exist to do: win. Whether you believe it will work or not, the Tea Party, to which UKIP is often compared, does have a strategy: Use the U.S. primary system to take over the Republican party. But Britain, crucially, lacks real primaries that could encourage buy-in to the main political parties, so UKIP has to work from the outside. Both in this approach and in its appeal to disaffected, apolitical, lower-middle-class voters, UKIP is closer to Ross Perot’s campaigns of the 1990s than the Tea Party of 2010, whose supporters, Gallup found, were demographically “quite representative of the public at large.” Farage argues that UKIP can win victories by pressuring the major British parties, but if UKIP genuinely believed that claim, it would be nicer about David Cameron. In theory, a UKIP that takes enough seats in Parliament could be a viable coalition partner for a populist Tory party that had jettisoned Cameron—but that implies UKIP plans to build for the long haul. 

Which brings me back to Lewes. Successful parties in Britain have strong constituency roots: The Liberal Democrats toiled for years in local government before they made their national breakthrough in 1997. But though UKIP does have a few local councilors—217 at last count—and will have more after local elections are held on May 22 in combination with the European vote, no one supports UKIP because they care about dog fouling or Page 3 girls. They vote UKIP because they care, passionately, about national issues. For most parties, success at the local level in May would presage later national victories. Unless UKIP’s leadership and membership start taking base-building and seat-targeting far more seriously, it will ride high only as long as immigration—atypically, even irrationally—ranks with the economy as the most important issue facing Britain, as it has done for the past few months. Immigration may be a good starter issue—and Britain’s legal inability to control its own borders is an entirely legitimate and reasonable subject on which to campaign—but it’s likely to be a bad finisher.

Above all, UKIP is a reflection of the rising power and intrusiveness of the EU, certainly, but also of the broader decay of political parties and political deference across Europe, and in Britain in particular. In a parliamentary system, the decay of parties is intensely problematic, because it is parties that make governments: UKIP could never have come into existence in 1955, when the Tories and Labour commanded 96 percent of the vote, as opposed to the 65 percent they won in 2010. It is remarkable that the two most vital politicians in Britain today, London mayor Boris Johnson and Farage himself, are both outside Parliament.

On the other hand, the decline of political deference, which Tory MP Douglas Carswell has rightly described as the application of the conservative principles of choice and competition to politics, is far more healthy—and healthy or not, it is a trend politicians cannot stop. But it means that UKIP is trying to build a party in an era of party disintegration. There is much to applaud in UKIP’s desire to free the Parliament of Westminster from the toils of Brussels. But there is nothing about this mission that is going to be easy. Whether it wins or not on May 22, UKIP has a narrow and testing window of opportunity before the next general election. If UKIP is going to do the job, this needs to be the year it grows up.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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