A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

UKIP Waiting In The Wings…

In Europe, Home Affairs, Party politics on April 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For sure the most interesting element of upcoming local elections will be to what extent (or not) the Liberal Democrats are wiped off the electoral map. But that’s not what the Tory bloggers and Conservative strategists are worried about. In the (very) unlikely event that Labour takes every single Liberal Democrat local council seat, the Conservatives will still be the largest party in local government. And the Tories might even be hopeful of picking up a load of Liberal seats in the South-West, where Labour, for the most part, doesn’t really offer effective opposition.

It is not the Liberal Democrats that are vexing the Tories, but UKIP. Since the Conservative party’s formation in the 1830s, it has had exclusive or strong claim from the centre (Social and Economic or Classical Liberalism) through the centre-right (Red, Wet or One-Nation Conservatism) to the right (Thatcherite, Dry or Social Conservatism) of British politics, which has always ensured it is in the running for government. It has taken left parties, notably in Labour’s case, Blair, to move to the right in order to inhabit the centre. Cameron is the first Tory leader for a long while to bring his party to the left in order to win an election – no other leader since WW2 readily comes to mind. But now this seemingly natural position, encapsulating the right-leaning centre and the out-and-out right (NB not the far-right, which is fascistic, and rarely has ‘right-wing’ economic policies) is under threat from UKIP.

UKIP was initially founded as an anti-EU movement. However, Nigel Farage, who has entered and left and entered again through the revolving door of his party’s leadership, has sought to broaden the party beyond Euroscepticism; UKIP submitted a full manifesto at the previous general election. Stuart Wheeler, who, it is calculated, gave £5 million to the Conservatives, jumped ship to UKIP in 2009. UKIP came second in the European elections, taking 12 seats in the EU Parliament. At the last general election, it took more votes than the Green party, polling at 3.1%.

However, the popularity that these European results suggest is not mirrored elsewhere: it has far fewer local government representatives than the Greens. It has previously enjoyed the backing of one Tory defector in the commons and a few more in the Lords, but it has never won a Westminster seat through the ballot box. At the general election, the eloquent Farage failed to beat the Speaker and an independent, coming third. The party has struggled to shake off allegations of racism and has fallen foul of normal rules of decency in the European Parliament.

Why then are Conservative party supporters worried about UKIP? On a general level, UKIP takes a position to the right of the Conservative party. While the strains of coalition are being widely felt and reported in the Liberal Party, the right of the Tory Party is not terribly happy cuddling up to a party that wants to abolish nuclear weapons, pervert the voting system, make the Lords elected, introduce copious quantities of business regulation, raise taxes, become European, and generally be lefties. While the Conservative party is remarkably solid despite its breadth, its electorate needn’t be – and UKIP is an attractive proposition, with promises to charge a flat rate of income tax, abolish National Insurance, hugely deregulate, and invest heavily in defence, aside from the flagship policy of leaving the expensive and invasive EU.

There are, however, more contingent factors. In a recent by-election in Barnsley, UKIP came second, polling more votes than both coalition parties combined. There should be a caveat – this was a by-election in a safe Labour seat; the Tories had never done well, and the tuition fees u-turn was still fresh in Liberal minds. But it made people think, and the UKIP people began to chatter about making a proper emergence onto the political scene. In addition, a large number of EU issues have come up during this Parliament – the UK having to contribute to bail out debt-laden Eurozone economies, the European Court on Human Rights handing down verdicts on allowing prisoners to vote, and not allowing people to be permanently kept on a sex offenders register. Cameron may rightly claim that has no legal wriggle-room – and the reality is he probably doesn’t have political wriggle-room either, since he depends on the Liberal Democrats – but there will be an impression in the body politic that the Conservatives are failing to defend British sovereignty from the encroaching EU. Resentment also lingers about Cameron’s decision not to offer a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon (and those of you going ‘how could he offer one once it had passed?’ will not be heard by a significant section of grassroots Tories).

However, several factors mitigate against a sudden UKIP surge. Firstly, most people can’t name three UKIP politicians; Farage is the only one with any profile of note. Secondly, there is still the perception that UKIP is a single-issue party about the EU. Thirdly, UKIP has not attracted any important defections from the Conservative party – the loss of a donor, admittedly a generous one, did not really matter to Cameron, and nor did the defection of Bob Spink MP. Who he? Exactly. He was thrown out by his electorate at the next opportunity, and most Tory MPs will not be keen to follow his example. Fourthly, most UKIP voters would rather like a Conservative government; and they may be reluctant to vote after UKIP after their previous leader told them to back Eurosceptic Tories in 2010’s general election, and the swing to UKIP seems to have cost Cameron an outright majority. A similar potential UKIP nadir arose in 2004, but was blown out of the water by the singularity that was Robert Kilroy-Silk. While Farage seems more level-headed, it is important that UKIP has failed to convert from this position before.

And Cameron can kill UKIP’s electoral prospects at any point he wants. All he has to do is wait until UKIP claims a major victory (say, is the first party at the European elections) and say he is listening to the will of the people, and will give them a referendum on EU membership. He will have the Liberal Democrats over a barrel, seeing as they supported an in-out referendum when the Treaty of Lisbon was being ratified. There should also be enough Labour Eurosceptics to ease it through should Clegg take exception – after all, every time Miliband gets up to oppose it, Cameron will just say ‘Lisbon’ and he’ll retire in shame and embarrassment that the cabinet of which he was a part truckled so readily to the Eurocrats.

So don’t pay too much attention to the comment strings on Conservative Home blogs, or to the ramblings of UKIP members. A nadir of right-wing politics may be on the horizon for the UK, but UKIP will not be how it comes about; more likely, it seems, to come from Murdoch’s favourite Daniel Hannan, or a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative like Michael Gove. Cameron has nothing to fear from UKIP. Yet.

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