Firstly, did they really do that well?
There’s been some comment casting doubt on this, pointing out that their presence on local councils across the UK is similar to the Green Party, and unlike the Greens they don’t have control of any councils, or an MP in parliament. I reject this response, it’s indisputable that until this week the Green Party’s electoral achievements were more significant than those of UKIP, and with council control and Caroline Lucas in parliament they have a better embedded depth of political support. But this week’s events were remarkable, from some back of a napkin calculations I reckon the Greens have 127 councillors across the UK, and UKIP have 163. What is notable about Thursday’s election is that UKIP gained 137 of those councillors in one day, from virtually a standing start it is a noteworthy achievement, and one that deserve the attention being paid to it.
Local elections are also notoriously difficult landmarks between general elections. Not only do the councillors elected have different responsibilities, the parties often have a different flavour on a local level, local issues are in play, and because they are sometimes seen as less important they can be used as the repository for a vote against the parties in government. The way that people vote in mid term local or European elections isn’t necessarily an indicator of what will happen the next time parliament is elected. Further, trying to work out who does well and who does badly is complicated because not all parts of the country elect at the same time, or the same cycle. It is therefore difficult to turn the votes cast in local elections in a national percentage for each party, you can read more about that here.
The seats contested this week were last fought in 2009, a year where Labour sunk to the 22 per cent, and lost 291 councillors, the exact number they won back this year. So Labour did fairly well, but against a background of a deeply unpopular coalition government with the normal recipient of protest votes co-opted in to culpability for the nation’s woes, this wasn’t a result to get the pulses racing for them. The problem, for Labour, was that voters turned off by the policies, actions and personalities in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, had an alternative vehicle to use to register their dissent.
UKIP did very well in seats they had not previously contested and okay in those they held. There was not a continuation of a dramatic swing in places they had already won council seats. This suggests their support is broad but shallow. If they are to have more, and more substantial, electoral success in the future they will need to marshal their forces to target gaining control of councils or specific parliamentary seats. To some extent this goes against the nature of their support which has an element of Farage against the machine. Professionalism and strategy don’t always go well with raw passion and dissenchantment.
Is UKIP full of loonies and fruitcakes?
Maybe, a party that expands is candidate list as fast as UKIP has will have had a fairly low level of competition and scrutiny for selection. Following this week’s results, the attention paid to candidates by the press will increase, and the party is likely to up its game and vet candidates if it doesn’t want to shoot itself in the foot. A caveat here is that the very unvetted nature of the candidates appeals to the non-PR-polished image the party seeks to portray, too much professionalism may also damage the party’s prospects.
Is UKIP just a protest party?
A lot of the support that UKIP received comes because of dissatisfaction with parties that voters would traditionally support, that they are not doing what the voters would like them to do. So to some extent the UKIP surge is a beneficiary of protest voting. But it is more than that, the votes for UKIP are not only votes against the policies of the traditional three parties, but against the politics they are seen to represent. Their support is less protest and more anti-politics.
Is UKIP a single issue party?
Their origin and their initial support was single issue, it is still their raison d’etre. But they are supported for multiple reasons not just because of their views on Europe. They are seen as a more straight-talking right wing party, they pledge to do something about the things other politicians make excuses for. They are prepared to talk about immigration and tackle it. But their policies also don’t add up because they haven’t come under the scrutiny other parties do, and this is likely to change in the near future. Their spending is uncosted and set against aspirational, plucked from thin air, cuts in taxation.
But Europe does matter, and it is a form of xenophobia.
Europe matters less in terms of a policy position, which they are clear and unequivocal about, and has garnered them a certain amount of support in recent years, but more of a symbol of what politics has become and what it shouldn’t be. There is a core of support for UKIP which is passionately Eurosceptic and sufficiently so for that to be the main reason choosing this party over the others, but I don’t think their expansion this year is due to an increase in support for that perspective. Those voters aren’t going to be won back to the other parties by a more Eurosceptic position, because they’ll always be outflanked.
But Europe is a bogeyman. It is the exemplary case of a political institution disconnected from the real world, it is overseas, it is far away, it is overpaid, it makes unnecessary laws, it makes laws that cut across our way of life. It is something else, it is distinctly other, it is easy to reject and easy to use as a basket-catch-all for political disgruntlement.
And the opposition to this aloof political institution provides a platform to set the party as different to the conventional political class. We are different, they say, we’re not like them. UKIP thrive, as do all populist parties, by emphasising a faux familial relationship with voters and casting that in contrast to the disconnect other parties represent.
The problem with populism
It’s easy to be liked when you don’t have to do anything. As soon as difficult decisions have to be taken greater conflict will emerge and the rosy, simplistic picture presented collapses. Populist parties present politics as easy and straightforward, and sometimes a bit of clear passion and direction is vital to good leadership, but decisions are difficult.
When President Bartlett was running for re-election his opponent came out with a brilliant sound bite answer during a debate: “We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.” This is what populist politics does, it cuts complex issues down to fortune cookie wisdom. It suggests complex situations and simple solutions. But Bartlett catches it and replies:
“That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, and I’ll drop out of the race right now.”
The test for UKIP will be whether they can follow up this week’s success in future years, can they translate second places into victories, can they work as the opposition to the ruling group in local authorities, can they turn opposition into council control? Can they focus their resources in a way that translate broad but shallow support into sufficient backing to win a foothold in parliament. And will they be as popular when they have to make decisions that are difficult? I don’t think so.
Did marriage matter?
I don’t think the government’s plans to introduce same sex marriage were hugely influential in the tide of support that swept toward Nigel Farage’s party. I’m sure for some it was a crucial issue, and I’m sure the presence of a minor party opposing the government on this provided a useful way of signalling disagreement at a local election. I’m sure for many Christians frustrated at the actions and positions of the three main parties it was appealing to see a party taking a position they could support. But I think in a similar manner to Europe as a symbolic policy area representing disillusionment with politics, same sex marriage could be symbolic of disenchantment with policy positions. The political efficacy of voting for UKIP on the basis of their opposition to same-sex marriage is also open to debate, personally I don’t think it is particularly affective.
I would also question Christians supporting, or not supporting, any party on the basis of one issue. Political parties are there as vehicles to govern and when considering which to support we should take a broader perspective than just a signal issue, even though for many this is a vitally important one. If it is the issue that tips the balance then fair enough, but I don’t think it should provoke a switch in support in ignorance of other policies.
What does this mean for Cameron, the Conservatives and the Coalition?
Cameron has a problem because the voters do not see him as sincere, they consider him opportunistic and pragmatic, and will do what it takes to win votes. This is problematic for him because if he now pitches explicitly for those voters disenchanted with him and his party for that very reason he will look like he is being opportunistic and interested in winning votes more than standing for principles. It’s a bit of a catch-22.
With the emergence and success of a party such as UKIP it is possibly a little too easy to rely on a generic anti-politics response as the reason for their success, and this to some extent places the blame on the voters for not being sensible in their voting. This ignores the very real deficiencies in our political system and the political class. There are political parties led by people not trusted by the public and not wanted by large sections of their parties.
Saying a party succeeds because of anti-politics sentiment ignores that it is politics which is allowing this sentiment to be expressed. It can be a way of letting unpopular politicians off the hook by blaming the voting public.
Politics, perhaps to the chagrin of UKIP, is not other, it is not detached from the people. It is not a disconnected alternative reality far away from the lives of people casting votes in schools, community halls and leisure centres. Politics is of the people, and that is what we have seen this week.
It may be a short term development, it may be all flash and no lasting significance. But my hunch is that it is a decisive marker in collective disillusionment with politics as business as usual, and politics as process over policy. We want our politicians to be without fault, but moreover, we don’t want them to pretend they are without fault. It’s why Boris wins after swearing at Ken in the lift.
UKIP have a gift with the European Parliament elections next year, they are not voted on based on European policies or the performance of the European representatives. They will likely do well. The challenge for other parties is taking them seriously as a party that has received a significant number of votes, but also not jumping to the tune of a party that sets itself against the notion of politics and the manner in which it is performed. If they do try and ape UKIP too much politics could become a cross between blind man’s buff and Russian roulette.