Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Age of the Kipper...

Not a fishy tale but the rise and rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and those not well disposed to the Liberal Democrats have been crowing as a few polls have put UKIP in third place though other polls (notably ICM) still show UKIP well back in fourth.

Evidence from extensive polling by Lord Ashcroft's organisation confirms what I've suspected for some time and thereby hangs a curious tale.

UKIP is like the old Liberal Party in that it has one signature policy widely known and understood. For the Liberals, it was electoral reform, for UKIP it is withdrawal from the European Union (EU). If even the politically disinterested know one thing about UKIP, it is that it wants us out of the EU. It's a clear and unambiguous policy. Unfortunately, as the Liberals found with electoral reform, one policy does not a successful political party make - there are other factors at play.

When Conservative Governments take power after periods of Labour administration, they have to instigate unpopular policies aimed at repairing the damage left by the outgoing Government. The state of the public finances in May 2010 can only be described as disastrous but the inheritance of Edward Heath in June 1970 and Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 was equally dire.

Doing unpopular things doesn't do wonders for a governing party's poll ratings but that doesn't mean voters, having recently dumped Labour, will flock back, so enter the Liberals and in both 1972-73 and 1981-82 they enjoyed spectacular by-election successes and big poll ratings - remember Sutton & Cheam, Rochdale, Ely, Crosby, Hillhead etc, etc?

2010 has changed things somewhat - the Liberals are now in Government - in Coalition with the Conservatives - and the Government is regarded as either liberal-conservative or conservative-liberal in outlook, It too has had to bring in unpopular policies on benefits and tuition fees and both governing parties have seen falls in support. As before, Labour has only been a partial beneficiary - the elections of 1970 and 1979 saw the Conservative wins predicated on a slump in Liberal support while Labour support only fell in the following election. In 2010, Labour slumped and the recovery since then has been a combination of some movement back from those who became disaffected with Blair and Brown (mostly over Iraq) and went off to the Lib Dems.

Yet disillusionment with Cameron's Conservatives is different from the discontent felt toward Heath and Thatcher. Cameron is regarded as a liberal conservative and for the more traditionally-minded, especially on social matters, the Prime Minister's views on issues such as gay marriage are hard to tolerate. Whereas before there was no alternative (apart from abstention) for these social conservatives, UKIP has now appeared.

It's no surprise then that UKIP supporters are older, whiter and more male. UKIP is like the American Republican Party - a vestige for those who don't like the world the way it is and want it the way it was (or how they believe it was). Violently anti-political correctness, these are the Mail readers who believe multicultralism (whatever than means) is destroying the British way of life. An undercurrent of that is pure unadulterated anti-immigrant sentiments. This isn't the outright racism of the BNP or the National Front - this is a desire to see immigration "controlled" and UKIP communicate this wish by claiming that outside the EU immigration would be back in our control and we could restrict who comes in to the country (translation - keep out the Asians and the blacks and the East Europeans).

UKIP comes then to typify the "nasty" sentiments of modern Britain - intolerance, closet racism, homophobia and zenophobia. I'm sure this isn't Nigel Farage's aim by design but by accident UKIP has become the refuge for those who find Cameron's liberal conservatism more than they can bear.

UKIP now is of course no electoral threat in terms of winning seats - it is where the Liberal Party was in the 1950s. It is able to perform decently at by-elections but it has no "heartland" unlike the 1950s Liberals who had rural Wales and Scotland.

The unpalatable truth, however, is that a strong UKIP performance in May 2015 will lead to only one thing - a huge Labour majority. If UKIP tears lumps out of the Tory vote, Labour will be the beneficiary and a 10-15% UKIP poll will shatter the Conservatives just as effectively as 1997 and perhaps even more so.

The Labour Government will govern without reference to UKIP and likely introduce policies even more anathema to UKIP supporters. For UKIP, the "prize" will be the remnant of the Conservative Party. That's not to say UKIP will replace the Tories but the Conservative Party will be forced to absorb UKIP policies and ultimately UKIP itself just as the American Republicans did to the Tea Party (or vice versa depending on your perspective).

It will then be 2020 before a Conservative Party indistinguishable from UKIP today will have its chance. The problem is the world will have moved on - more immigration, more assimilation, more toleration and therefore harder for a party with the views of today's UKIP to win a majority.

It may then be that those former Conservatives who now support UKIP are hammering a very large nail into the Tory Party's coffin. Yet, people said the same about the SDP and Labour in the 80s. The journey back to power for Labour produced a party in 1997 unrecognisable from that which lost in 1979. For the Conservatives, defeat in 2015 may mean another extended period in the political wilderness and UKIP further away from the dream of British withdrawal from the EU.

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