"So, what are you going to do about the problem of dog fouling?” I was following Donna Edmunds, a district councilor and a United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP) candidate for the European parliament, as she went door to door in the center of Lewes, a picturesque town nestled just below the South Downs, on the edge of the London commuter belt. There weren’t many votes for UKIP in prosperous Lewes, and there was one less after Edmunds said that while her party was definitely opposed to dog poop, they didn’t actually have a policy on it.
The next house didn’t go any better. “What are you going to do about Page 3 girls?” Edmunds allowed that, as a believer in individual freedom, she wasn’t planning on doing anything about the topless young ladies that grace the inside of the Sun newspaper. As we turned away, we agreed that if you didn’t like Page 3 girls, the appropriate thing to do was not to buy the Sun. But it was another vote lost.
On May 22, Britain—and Europe—will start to vote in elections to the European parliament. Actually, most people won’t bother with the voting: Across the EU, turnout has fallen continuously since 1979. But in Britain, UKIP is looking forward to the day. Polls put it neck and neck with Labour for first place. If UKIP wins, it will be the first outright victory in a national election for any party other than Labour or the Tories since 1906. Admittedly, it’s only a European election—the obvious irony is that UKIP, like many insurgent parties across the EU, will do best in elections to a legislature it despises. But with the next British general election scheduled to be held in May 2015, UKIP could be more than a flash in the pan protest. With the near collapse of the Liberal Democrats, part of David Cameron’s coalition government, UKIP has a chance to become Britain’s third party. What is less clear is whether UKIP is ready to seize that chance.
UKIP was founded in 1993, but it endured a chaotic and poorly led first 15 years. It won over 16 percent in the 2009 European elections, but it drew barely 3 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election, and it rarely figured in national opinion polling until 2012. Then, suddenly, UKIP shot ahead, impelled in part by the near-simultaneous collapse of every other alternative. The far-right British National party (BNP) fell apart; Labour had the turgid Ed Miliband as its new leader; the Liberal Democrats imploded as they were forced to take responsibility for governing; and the Tories bungled the 2012 budget by imposing new taxes on the elderly. From low single digits, UKIP surged in national voting intentions to the mid-teens, and in European voting intentions to 30 percent.
That surge has spurred on the world-class British psephological industry, as pollsters try to figure out where the voters are coming from. UKIP, naturally, celebrates itself as the voice of Britain, drawing support from all regions, classes, and parties, and there is a bit of truth in that claim. But only a bit. The reality is that a substantial plurality of UKIP’s support—over 43 percent, according to a massive survey by Populus and the Financial Times—comes from former Conservative supporters. Former Liberal Democrat, core UKIP, and nonvoters and former supporters of minor parties add a bit more than 15 percent each, and former Labour voters well under 10 percent. By the same token, UKIP is strongest in the Tory heartlands in the South, weaker in the Labour North and Wales, and almost nonexistent in Scotland.
So while the first academic analysis of UKIP, Revolt on the Right, recently published by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, finds that it poses a serious long-run threat to Labour, today it’s primarily a problem for the Conservative party. It would be a bigger problem if it were better organized on the ground: One UKIP activist described the party to me as “aggressively amateur.” Peter Catterall, a distinguished historian of modern Britain and a Tory councilor in the London borough of Bexley, estimates that if UKIP got its act together locally, it could poll 20 percent. As it is, UKIP has perhaps 5 percent in Bexley. UKIP’s surge reflects the party’s sudden fame—or notoriety—more than it does the building of a permanent institution.