UKIP – The Third Party of British Politics?By Paul Whiteley on 1 October 2013
There has been a dramatic rise in support for the United Kingdon Independence Party, both in the polls and in terms of votes in local elections and by-elections since the general election of 2010. What accounts for this change in the fortunes of a party that only came into existence in 1993?
The chart above shows voting intentions for the three major parties as well as UKIP from the General Election of 2010 to July 2013. The data come from the British Election Study and the National Evaluation of Policy Monitor based at the University of Essex. It shows that UKIP drew ahead of the Liberal Democrats in early 2013 and adds plausibility to the claim made by Nigel Farage in 2011 that:
“The Liberal Democrats are no longer the voice of opposition in British politics – we are. Between now and the next general election our aim is to replace them as the third party in British politics”.
By any standards UKIP is a success story in electoral terms. When the party contested its first European Parliamentary elections in 1994, it received just over 150,000 votes and failed to win a seat. By the time of the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, fifteen years later, it came in second with nearly 2.5 million votes and captured 13 seats. In Westminster by-elections held since 2010, the party came in second in four of them, with an impressive 28 per cent vote share in Eastleigh in February 2013. The party also has done well in local elections; for example, in districts where UKIP had previously held only eight seats, the party won 147 seats in the May 2013 County Council contests.
So what explains this record of electoral success? There are a number of factors at work, some of them relating to the sociology of their vote but mainly to the performance of the three major parties in attempting to handle the fallout from the worst recession to hit Britain since the 1930s. The sociological measures relate to the characteristics of UKIP voters. They tend to be financially insecure individuals, mostly older males who are relatively uneducated and who blame the European Union for Britain’s political and economic problems. Their views have been reinforced by the fact that euroscepticism has been growing in Britain over the last few years. In January 2008 just before the full extent of the financial crisis and recession became apparent, some 48 per cent of the respondents to British Election Study surveys approved of UK membership of the European Union and 41 per cent disapproved. By July 2013 as signs of recovery started to emerge, some 46 per cent approved and 52 per cent disapproved. Many people who were ‘don’t knows’ when it comes to EU membership have switched to the opposition camp. Part of the reason for this is that Britons are increasingly likely to blame the European Union for the economic crisis, a reflection of the continuing bad news from the Eurozone. This has had the effect of eroding support for UK membership and has helped UKIP.
But there is more to the story of UKIP’s success than euroscepticism. In our new book ‘Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Choice in Britain’ we investigate the impact of valence policies on electoral support. The term 'valence' was introduced by the American political scientist Donald Stokes to describe the fact that voters focus heavily on competing parties' abilities to deliver policies on issues over which there is widespread agreement about what should be done. A classic valence issue is the economy. With most voters supporting economic growth coupled with low rates of unemployment and inflation, they tend to support parties which they judge capable of delivering these outcomes. Voters' concerns with valence issues mean that they typically dominate the political agenda in Britain and elsewhere. Although the salience of specific valence issues varies over time, their continuing importance focuses political debates on 'who can do the job' rather than on 'what the job should be.'
This creates a serious problem for the major parties of government when there is a widespread perception that none of them can deliver the policies that voters want, something which has been evident in our surveys since the start of the recession. When the leading parties are perceived to have failed, it opens up an opportunity for minor parties, which previously would have been ignored by the average voter. The analysis shows that discontent with the Coalition government’s poor economic performance has not translated into growing support for Labour, which is normally what would happen. Instead UKIP is picking up support from people who are discontented with the Coalition’s performance on the economy, immigration and public services.
UKIP has been further helped by the fact that the Liberal Democrats, the traditional party of discontent and protest, is now in government and therefore forfeits the support of ‘none of the above’ voters. In short UKIP has become the beneficiary of the serious crisis which has hit the British economy since 2008, and as things stand it has a fair chance of achieving its goal of being the third party of British politics in terms of vote shares in 2015.
Paul Whiteley is Professor of Government at the University of Essex. A shorter version of this blog will be published in the ESRC’s annual Britain in 2014 magazine later this year.