For people once described by David Cameron as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly” (I’ve always savored that sly “mostly”), the members of UKIP—the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party—gathered in Birmingham last month for their annual conference were a bright, friendly, and refreshingly normal bunch.
They were also surprisingly upbeat. The euro—that Freddy Krueger of currencies—remains as indestructible as it is destructive, and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, is openly using the once-taboo F-word, pressing for transformation of the EU into a “federation of nation-states.” But never mind all that, the cheerfully determined folk at the conference reckoned that events were moving their way. UKIP, said its leader, the indispensable, charismatic, and hugely entertaining Nigel Farage, is “a party in a very good mood.”
Indeed it is, and why not? Nearly two decades after its founding in 1993, UKIP has come a very long way, despite bouts of internecine strife, a series of scandals, serial eccentricity, and a collection of electoral disasters that would have made even Harold Stassen pause. As Farage explained to the conference, things had been a “bit shambolic” in the past, a confession that was no revelation.
Thanks to the EU, and in more ways than one, this dismal state of affairs has been changing. The relentless intrusions of Brussels into everyday British life have sustained a market for UKIP’s ideas in a nation that was never europhile to start with. And one shocking continental innovation—proportional representation—has given UKIP a position unimaginable under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.
The mathematics of first-past-the-post are brutal for upstart political parties, except in areas where they can find concentrated support such as that enjoyed by nationalists in Scotland and Wales. The Liberal Democrats took 23 percent of the vote in the 2010 election, but only 57 seats in the 650-member House of Commons. UKIP fared even worse, winning 3 percent of the popular vote and taking no seats at all.
Such results feed upon themselves. The electorate shies away from casting votes that will be wasted—or worse. Much of UKIP’s support comes from formerly die-hard Tories, and many more of that growing tribe would follow their lead were it not for their (justifiable) fear of splitting the right-wing vote and letting the left slip in through the middle. As it is, defections to UKIP probably cost the Conservatives some 20 seats—and an absolute majority—in the 2010 election. The Tories thus ended up in a coalition government with the euromaniacal Liberal Democrats, an irony lost on few and a strong disincentive for many potential UKIP voters to slip the Tory leash. And UKIP hasn’t done much better in local elections. It has just a handful of councilors and supreme power only in the Cambridgeshire town of Ramsey (population 6,000).
Thanks to proportional representation, worries about wasted or counter-productive votes have not been such an issue in elections to the EU’s Potemkin parliament. The few concerns have been further diluted by the suspicion—not quite as justified as in the past—that the world’s only commuting legislature (as a result of some ancient compromise, it sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg) counts for very little. UKIP celebrated the election of its first three members of the European parliament in 1999. Five years later, UKIP came third with 16.1 percent of the vote and 12 MEPs. In 2009 it overtook the governing Labour party, grabbing 16.5 percent of the poll and a haul of 13 seats out of a British total of 72. UKIP’s leadership is convinced the party has a good chance of coming out on top in the 2014 EU elections.
The very nature of a European election makes it an obvious vehicle for a protest against the Brussels oligarchy. That fact, combined with a typically low turnout (in 2009 an unimpressive 34 percent of the British electorate), means that those percentages overstate UKIP’s real backing. Nevertheless the prospect of UKIP topping the euro-poll in 2014—and the momentum that would come with it—must worry David Cameron, facing a national election the following year.