A week on from the local elections, and there seems to be no end to the debate about UKIP’s success. Explanations fall into two broad categories. Some insist that UKIP garnered merely a temporary midterm protest vote. Others see Nigel Farage’s outfit as a lasting threat to which the main parties must respond by adopting more hardline policies, especially on Europe, immigration and welfare.
Both views are right. And both are wrong. UKIP does draw the protest vote. But the very character of the protest vote is changing.
The traditional party of protest in Britain was, of course, the Liberal Democrats (or the Liberals as they were before they got hitched to the SDP). Once a party of government, the failure of the Liberals to win power for most of the twentieth century made it an ideal vehicle for the protest vote – a safe, mainstream party to which to turn at relatively irrelevant elections as a means of temporarily expressing dissatisfaction with one of the main parties before returning to the fold; a way sending a message but not of upsetting the system.
Once the Liberal Democrats became part of the Coalition government after the 2010 election, they could no longer play this role. But something more fundamental has also changed. The protest vote is no longer about teaching the main parties a lesson. It is about disenchantment with, and disengagement from, the whole political process. Voters are not saying ‘I am voting for another party at this election to make you listen to me’. Increasingly many are saying, ‘You will never listen to me, so there is no point in voting for you at all’.
As telling as the 23 per cent of the vote that UKIP won last week was the fact that none of the main parties gained more than 30 per cent. Given that the turnout at the election is estimated at around 31 per cent, it means that no party could attract the support of even ten per cent of eligible voters. Even allowing for the fact that turnout is often low at local elections, it is a startling expression of disdain for all the political parties. On the same day as the local elections was the South Shields by-election. In a safe Labour seat, UKIP came second, humiliating both the Conservatives, whose vote was cut by almost two-thirds, and the Liberal Democrats, who attracted just 352 votes, or 1.4 per cent of the electorate. But again, perhaps more significant than the almost 6000 votes that UKIP won was the fact that more than 38,000 people – 60 per cent of the electorate – did not bother casting a vote at all.
Such disdain for the mainstream parties is not peculiar to Britain. Throughout Europe the postwar political system, built around a divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is breaking own. The weakening of the old parties has made room for a host of new ones, from the Front National in France to the True Finns, from the Italy’s Five Star Movement to Syriza in Greece. It has also created disenchantment with the very idea of politics. In this post-ideological age, politics has reduced largely to a question of management rather than of social transformation. Few mainstream parties possess any more a clear set of political principles. Technocrats have taken over the system. All this has deepened the disengagement of the public from the political process, and widened the gap between voters and the elite. That is why so many of the new groups position themselves as ‘anti-political’ parties.
That is also why it is wrong to see UKIP as simply leeching votes from the Conservatives. Analysis by Manchester University politics lecturer Rob Ford suggests that less than half of UKIP’s current support comes from former Tory voters. More than a third of today’s UKIP voters voted for Labour a decade ago. ‘UKIP’s strongest support’, Ford suggests, ‘often comes from older working class voters, who often have traditional left wing loyalties’ but who have become disenchanted and angry with the political elite. The demise of labour movement organizations, and the Labour Party’s cutting of its links with its traditional working class constituencies, has left many feeling voiceless and unrepresented. The one-time UKIP slogan ‘Sod The Lot’ sums up well the frustrations of such voters.
Two issues in particular have driven the ‘Sod the lot’ attitude. The first is the European Union. Even a few years ago hostility to the EU was regarded as a peculiarly British phenomenon, and an expression of British isolation and xenophobia. Now, even Germany boasts the anti-EU Alternative for Germany, while the Front National, with similar views to UKIP, commands the support of one in five voters in France. The anti-democratic character of the EU bureaucracy has come to symbolize that sense of voicelessness that defines many of those who vote UKIP.
Even more symbolic of an out-of-touch political elite has been the issue of immigration. UKIP may have begun as an anti-EU party. But the issue that really defines it today, like it does many of the new populist parties in Europe, is that of immigration. Immigrants have become both a catch-all explanation of all social ills and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of the voters. It is also an issue that terrifies the mainstream. Hence the extraordinary scramble by all three the mainstream parties since the Eastleigh by-election to establish their anti-immigration credentials. The Labour Party has apologized for failing to restrict immigration while in office, and promised new curbs on welfare and housing benefits for EU migrants. The Liberal Democrats have disowned their previous policy of amnesty for illegal immigrants and talked of forcing migrants from ‘high risk’ countries to pay a ‘bond’ before they can come to Britain. David Cameron insisted that immigration was ‘badly out of control’, and that many migrants come to Britain to get ‘something for nothing’ and to live off the welfare state.
In the end, though, it is not UKIP’s policies but its attitude that really attracts voters. As Lord Ashcroft, the Tory party’s internal pollster, has put it, ‘UKIP’s primary attraction is that it will “say things that need to be said but others are scared to say”.’ UKIP supporters see the party as ‘on the side of people like me’. In Ashscroft’s words, ‘Agreement that UKIP shares their values and has its heart in the right place are… more important than policy issues in determining whether someone is drawn to the party.’ UKIP leader Nigel Farage is the son of a stockbroker, was educated at Dulwich College, one of the most exclusive public schools in the country, and made his money as City banker. That he should be seen as ‘one of the people’ when compared to the mainstream party leaders tells us less about Farage and UKIP than about how despised and out of touch the main parties have become.
Whether or not UKIP’s success endures remains to be seen. It may, like the Front National in France, transform the political landscape. It may fizzle out. The real problem, however, is not UKIP, but the way that disengagement with politics has transformed the very notion of the protest vote. That is why both responses to the success of UKIP are wrongheaded. Those who dismiss UKIP as a mere vehicle for protest are blind to the fragmentation of the old political order. Those who think that adopting its policies on immigration will help restore voter loyalty underestimate the degree of distrust of politicians that exists today. In any case, organizations such as UKIP are only able to exploit the issue of immigration because mainstream politicians have for years cynically played on the idea that immigrants are responsible for social problems. Promoting greater hostility to immigration will not solve those problems, but will strengthen the hand of reactionary groups. What we need is to be able to engage with people’s anxieties, to address their disenchantment, but also to challenge reactionary ideas, particularly about immigration. Unfortunately no politician seems willing, or able, to take on that task.