"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.
The Conservative party is very much a permanent institution, and in politics you don’t become an institution without a well-developed sense of paranoia. After all, they really are all out to get you. Cameron has tried to respond to UKIP by promising to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU if he wins the next election, and by pledging to cut net migration into Britain to the “tens of thousands.” But neither appeal has worked, because neither is credible. As Cameron freely admits, he doesn’t actually want to leave the EU, and as long as it’s in the EU, Britain lacks the right to control its borders: Annual net migration jumped by late 2013 to over 200,000, more than half of it from within the EU.
While UKIP is often described as Euroskeptic—and it is, intensely so—there is no evidence that Britain will vote en masse for a party that bases its core appeal on hostility to the EU. The EU is ignored, disliked, and resented in Britain, but except for a stout band of believers, the preservation of British sovereignty and parliamentary democracy are too abstract to win votes. What mass immigration has done, for the first time, is connect the EU to economic, social, and identity issues, which voters do care about.
And the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is a genius at making that connection. Like him or not, you cannot watch him without realizing that, as a performer, he is simply in a different league from Britain’s other party leaders. When the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, unwisely challenged Farage to a series of debates earlier this year, Farage squashed him comprehensively. His penchant for troubling remarks—such as his expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s political skills, which made waves in late March—is an unpleasant facet of his appeal as the pint-drinking, politically incorrect disturber of the political establishment. As I found on the doorsteps of Lewes, he alienates three voters for every four he attracts, but that’s still a net win.
The heart of UKIP’s appeal, as Ford and Goodwin rightly put it, is both antipolitical and working class. It bears similarities to Enoch Powell’s rebellion in the late 1960s, in that it comes from the Tory party but, by opposing the EU and mass immigration, appeals strongly to those conventionally held to be on the left. It is anti-EU because the EU is the doyen of Britain’s postwar establishment, and it opposes mass immigration because the elites have—on occasion furtively—supported it. It speaks most clearly to the voters alienated by Tony Blair’s metropolitan liberalism, Clegg and Miliband’s oleaginous insignificance, and Cameron’s Etonian privilege. The prime minister famously dismissed UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” and UKIP supporters—Kippers—return the compliment with interest. Speaking with me over a pint, one Kipper put it thus: “I hate David Cameron, and I hate his fat face too.”
Every calculation of political interest tells the Tories—and especially Euroskeptic Tories, who are in the majority in the party—that they need to do a deal with UKIP before 2015, lest it turn victory from an improbability to an impossibility, lose them their shot at a referendum, and hand the government to Labour. But powerful instincts in both parties are against an alliance. So far, Labour has lost few votes to UKIP: It is out of power, and core Labour voters are more tribal in their loyalties than the swollen Tory vote that won the ambiguous victory of 2010. But in the long run, if Britain’s major parties continue to define themselves as elite, professional, and metropolitan, none will be well-placed to win back voters who have drifted to UKIP.
Yet that doesn’t stop them from trying. If UKIP can be loved, it is mostly for its enemies. There is the EU, of course, but—centrally—there is the British political establishment, which has over the past six months done its unavailing best to rubbish UKIP. There is much in UKIP that deserves rubbishing, but when the Europhile Financial Times argues that UKIP is secretly composed of professional politicians—it’s really not—or when Tory columnist Matthew Paris describes it as an “unpleasant mutiny within the Conservative Party”—as though party members should shut up and obey—they make UKIP’s case for it.
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.