They were predicted to triumph in this year’s European Parliament elections and last Sunday when the results were announced it was confirmed: the UK Independence Party were the country’s biggest party, winning 27 percent of the vote and securing 24 seats in the European Parliament. Having achieved this feat, they created history by becoming the first party other than Conservative or Labour to win a nationwide election in a century.
Sunday night proved to be a good night for other eurosceptic parties across the Channel too. France’s Front National, the Danish People’s Party and Greece’s SYRIZA all topped the count in their respective countries whereas in other countries, eurosceptic parties made strong gains. So what are the reasons behind UKIP’s rise? There has been plenty of talk from politicians and journalists about voters’ disenchantment with the main political parties, along with concerns over immigration, economic prospects and politics in general. All of these are not far from the truth. Back in late April-early May pollsters YouGov conducted surveys in six EU countries (UK, France, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Sweden) and found that government disapproval exceeded 50 percent in each country. According to the EU’s polling agency Eurobarometer, trust in the EU has been at an unprecedented low in the past year, a decline going back to 2008-9.
Championing withdrawal from the EU is of course part of UKIP’s DNA and Britain could, out of the twenty-eight states that comprise the bloc, take the crown for being the most eurosceptic. Britons feel less ‘European’ than their neighbours, hold more negative views of the European project and a higher percentage of the population favour quitting the Union. Does this push more people into the UKIP camp? Perhaps, but Europe is not a priority to British voters, not in a way the ‘I’ word is. Any guesses for what that word is?
YouGov and fellow pollsters Ipsos-MORI have found immigration and race relations to be the most salient political issue to the UK electorate. It now equals or surpasses the economy in importance (the first time since summer 2008 that the economy hasn’t been the number one issue.) As we all know, UKIP want to curb and control immigration levels. Interestingly, the demographics citing immigration as the main issue are the lower skilled, (the ‘C2DE classes,’) those aged 55 and over, precisely the two demographics from which UKIP have derived a lot of their support.
Yet a group that has turned into a prominent support base for Nigel Farage’s party are former Conservative voters. Before the recent European elections, 42 percent of respondents who voted Tory in the 2010 General Election, said they intended to vote UKIP in the forthcoming European elections. Among the nine thousand adults questioned were two thousand who intended to vote UKIP. Forty-nine percent of this grouping said that they had voted Tory in 2010.
“These figures,” writes Peter Kellner in the accompanying commentary for YouGov, “confirm that the Conservative have by far the largest problem with UKIP.” However Labour may have reasons to worry due to UKIP’s strong following amongst the lower skilled. This is a central argument in Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain a new book released this year by political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. If UKIP are able to harness support from both parties’ bases then one could argue that UKIP’s success in the long-term may come through forcing Labour and the Conservatives to toughen up on immigration laws and turning the latter ‘more Thatcherite’
The rise of UKIP has garnered much attention although ultimately it is still early to say how they will fare in the long-term. Come next year, when the General Election is scheduled, UKIP’s healthy 27% vote share may slump as it did in 2010 following a second place finish in the European elections of 2009.There will also be the innate bias of the electoral system to contend with. What will be the fortunes of the party in the event of Britain exiting the EU following a referendum in 2017, if that occurs? Before too long they may end up being described by political scientists as a ‘flash in the pan party,’ in other words they peak but then quickly decline.
For the time being, as long as immigration remains a salient issue and there is widespread disapproval of Westminster and Brussels then UKIP may continue to register a substantial level of support. With the General Election less than a year away a robust UKIP in the mix could make things that more interesting.