UKIP’s latest successes could yet damage it

Slowly the dust is beginning to settle on UKIP’s latest by-election victory. This one could be analysed as more or less important than the last one dependent on a number of factors.

Rochester and Strood was a considerably less attractive target seat for UKIP than Clacton on Sea. It has much less of the older, poorer, white, “left behind” demographic which has been previously identified as the classic UKIP voter. Furthermore it seemed that Mark Reckless is not as popular an MP as Douglas Carswell who has built up a formidable reputation and had significantly increased the Tory membership in his constituency before defecting to UKIP. There were frequent references during the Clacton by-election to Carswell’s popularity. It seems this slightly awkward looking public school educated intellectual is actually genuinely popular in his constituency and also at Westminster: so much so that many Tory MPs were apparently unwilling to go to Clacton to campaign against him.

None of that pertained at Rochester and Strood: it is richer, closer to London and Reckless was not regarded as highly by his constituents nor his former Westminster Conservative colleagues. Cameron and the Tories, especially Michael Gove, the newly demoted chief whip, were desperate to get the seat back. In Gove’s case it was like a dog which has just been beaten desperately trying to regain its master’s favour. Despite throwing the kitchen sink at the election a sink was duly returned (both literally and figuratively).

As such the Rochester and Strood election could be suggested to be more important, marking a real break through for UKIP. That said this looked very like a by-election protest vote: even more so than Clacton. Anyone who follows UK politics can think of the numerous times when the Liberal Democrats (remember them – no neither can I: oh yes I do vaguely) took safe seats from the government at by-election only to lose them at the general election even more emphatically than they had won them. Apparently many voters in Rochester suggested they would vote UKIP to give Cameron a kicking and then go back to the Tory fold come next May. As such the Conservatives can be fairly confident of retaking Rochester whereas Clacton will be a much harder ask.

It is still unclear how many seats UKIP could get at the general election. It is beginning to look likely that they will have some representation (and probably more than just Carswell’s seat) after May. However, at least as interesting, though less focused on has been the shifts in the voting demographics of UKIP, the changes in its leadership and how that relates to its leadership’s policies and interaction with their supporters. In that there may be the seeds of the same sort of disconnect which already afflicts the three major parties (if the Liberal Democrats can still be counted as a major party)

UKIP was initially founded by Alan Sked a serious academic from LSE. Initially it was an intellectual, broadly right wing libertarian party. Nigel Farage has gradually and spectacularly transformed it from being a bit of a joke to a semi serious political force. In the process it has shed much of its intellectualism and become much more populist. The prejudice was that UKIP’s natural supporters were retired colonels and majors from the shire counties. Farage worked out some years ago that (to continue the military metaphor) there were a great many more corporals and privates than colonels and majors. As such he tacked towards a more populist and working class / lower middle class friendly set of policies and analyses. He correctly noted before anyone in the mainstream did that immigration especially from the new EU accession countries was much more an issue for the working and lower middle class than for the richer members of society.

Farage also correctly saw that the areas where recent immigration had had the greatest impact (in terms of demographic change if not always in numbers) were not, as with previous waves of migration, the industrial towns and cities of London, the midlands and the north. Rather the major burden of immigration and the places where it was causing issues was along the east coast of England in a great arc from Kent right round through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and into Lincolnshire; becoming less relevant into Yorkshire and further north. Essentially the east coast of the south east, east of England and east midlands. These areas actually once had a radical tradition (they formed much of the backbone of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the Civil War and Lincolnshire was the birthplace of Methodism). However more recently they had become a largely Tory forgotten backwater. The rural and smaller town working and lower middle class largely voted Tory though some switched to Labour during Blair’s pomp.

The claim is that New Labour wanted “To rub the right’s noses in diversity” and ensure a permanent Labour majority. Whether that is true or not the reality is that the effect of mass immigration was most felt in the east. Farage cottoned on to this earlier than almost anyone.

The claim was often made that the reason for mass migration especially to the highly productive agricultural (especially mass market horticultural) areas of the east of England was because the indigenous population would not do the work. Farage quite some years ago noted on Question Time that prior to mass migration the turnips did not rot in the fields of Norfolk and claimed that the people who benefited from mass migration were the gang masters. That was not picked up on much in the mainstream media at the time but I remember thinking it being an odd comment from a free market Thatcherite. Over the years, however, UKIP has moved significantly to the left on a number of issues. They have promoted the renationalisation of British Rail and consistently opposed privatisation of Royal Mail.

The idea of UKIP as a left wing party may seem ludicrous but largely because that is the simplistic thesis promoted by many in the media and UKIP’s political opponents. UKIP is also to an extent Nationalist Socialist were it not for the utterly awful associations of that term. However, shorn of those associations as a political ideology and an explanation for UKIP’s appeal it makes a significant amount of sense (patriotic socialist or one nation socialist might be more palatable terms). UKIP has managed to appeal to the English (though no one should forget that UKIP has a Welsh and Scottish MEP and a Northern Ireland MLA) working class remarkably successfully.

UKIP have been largely saved from degenerating into a far right BNP-lite types (national socialists in the traditional sense of the term) partly by their aggressive attempts to keep former BNP members out and their promotion of members from ethnic minorities who have been in the UK for many years. This is not a complete defence but does blunt the accusations of racism. Amusing as Dennis Skinner’s attack on Mark Reckless was in the Commons last week, previous similar attacks have failed to dent Farage’s bandwagon and there is no evidence they will do so now.

Farage, a privately educated commodities broker, may seem an unlikely champion for the English working class (a latter day Tribune of the Plebs?) but he has successfully managed it at the same time as keeping the colonels in the shires on side. Indeed it may be that the posh boys at the top in UKIP have helped prevent UKIP from descending into a BNP typed far right spiral of hatred and political oblivion.

Here, however, the latest Tory defectors could pose a problem. Carswell may be popular with many of his working class constituents but is a free market intellectual. Mark Reckless could be accused of being an early middle aged politician passed over by the Tories and sore about it, hence, his defection. The same could be applied to Douglas Carswell but seems less convincing. He has also been passed over but does appear a serious political thinker of the centre right. These new right wing leaders in UKIP may drag its centre of gravity back away from the more left of centre ideas UKIP has recently been propounding. One can hardly see Carswell suggesting renationalisation of the railways or Royal Mail. Already UKIP have dropped the suggestion of increased VAT on some luxury goods. At least from a UKIP perspective Carswell voted against same sex marriage though Reckless supported it.

UKIP’s recent successes have buoyed them but there is a danger that would be magnified even more if there were additional Tory defectors. That is that they drift back to the economic libertarianism which they have been edging away from. Furthermore getting more posh, independently educated Oxbridge types (though only Reckless is Oxbridge educated) might lead voters to conclude that UKIP’s leadership is just the same as all the others.

I have suggested it before but the largest gap in British politics is for a socially conservative, economically left of centre patriotic British one nation party. That party should be Labour under the right leader and with the right policies and properly pitched appeal. Alan Johnston might have been such a leader, a generation before Peter Shore could have been. However since the disasters of the 1980s Labour seem committed to social liberalism and indeed economic neoliberalism. Until the Labour party and the broader left understand that there is no contradiction between social conservatism, patriotism and a left of centre economic analysis they are unlikely to form a majority government.

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  • Steven Powell

    Excellent article. Now let’s see whether Carswell and Reckless will remain disciplined when UKIP publish their manifesto for the GE 2015. It’s going to take a great deal of triangulation from Farage to keep those two happy on a specific policy platform

  • WildTom

    Mostly a good article, and the sort of broad analysis which is needed right now. However, the bit which lacks credibility for me is your claim that UKIP is “National Socialist”. I fully realise that you are making a point about socialism rather than abut Nazism, but I do think you are falling into the trap common among libertarian undergraduates (such as I once was myself) of dividing the world clinically into libertarian free marketeers and socialists, with no ground in between. UKIP opposing privatisation of the Royal Mail and the NHS does not, by itself, make them socialists. It makes them normal, non-doctrinaire, free traders. Carswell told interviewers that his political hero is William Gladstone; he’s a good fit for a party that favours personal liberty and free trade but not outright libertarianism. And remember that Gladstone’s Liberals found much of their support among the working classes.

  • Dan

    The Tories are kidding themselves. Their candidate was a pitiful joke, they threw everything they could at it and failed miserably. They’ll not regain the seat come May.

  • If we look to the USA at the most recent midterms, and to the early gains of New Labour the gap is for a social liberal and prudent smaller state Conservatism with credible safety net.

    The real challenge for UKIP is to create a sense of itself that is coherent and credible. Being a bit all over the place is OK for a protest vote, but not so good when it comes to choosing who is going to be a component part of Govt (given that most believe some sort of coalition is the likely outcome of Westminster 2015). Can the Party provide coherence when it has so many conflicting ideals wrapped up in one group of discontents? Can they hold it together to turn discontented voters into a core electorate?

    Westminster 2015 will be the most fascinating election in a very long time.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Thanks for the item. For more on world Libertarians, please see http://www.LibertarianInternational.org the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization.

  • epg_ie

    Labour won the longest-lived majority government in modern British history, bar Thatcher/Major, by offering social liberalism and economic neo-liberalism. Ukip is offering precisely what you want and is on 11-17%, about half the support of each of the major parties. I conclude that your closing analysis is idealist thinking. The public support, as well as the intellectual backing, is simply not there.

  • LordFarquaad

    UKIP has risen from 3% support in 2010, however, and the polls are almost certainly understating their support currently.

    Virtually all the pollsters still allocate undecided voters to their 2010 party, dismiss a large number of UKIP voters if they claim to have voted UKIP in 2010, and fail to prompt for UKIP in their main question – all factors that are probably depressing UKIP numbers by at least 3-5%. The less conservative polls are now routinely putting UKIP in the 18-25% range.

    UKIP also has significantly lower support in Scotland and London than it has elsewhere, which depresses the national figures. In many English seats they now seem to be consistently commanding 25-30% of the vote. Not much more and they will reach a tipping point where dozens of provincial three way contests can end up going their way.

    Generally, their flagship policies chime with more than half the electorate (75% on immigration, 65% on a radically different relationship with the EU, etc.) But if they are still being hampered electorally, it’s probably partly the remnants of an amateur party machine, but also the bitter opposition they still encounter in almost every media outlet, as well as from all the Westminster parties.

    It’s hard to get people to take your policies seriously when ten newspaper articles a day repeat the lie that you have no policies and the policies you don’t have are all crazy and racist. But clearly more and more people are getting the message that UKIP isn’t as it’s being portrayed, and might even be worth voting for. At this stage, I think putting yet another conservative cap on their potential support would be foolhardy.

  • mickfealty

    I’d watch the county councils for the bigger gains… that’s were the real work of settling in will take place. In the mean time, the protest vote in England is now instinctively right rather than left of centre… That’s something rarely mentioned in most political commentary but it stands out for me.

  • Turgon

    Mick good point but to be fair UKIP have already done well in the last county council elections (see here for my analysis at the time). It is far too early to think of a sea change in UK politics but for the first time since UKIP came on the scene few serious people are suggesting that UKIP is likely to end up with no seats at the next general election. I guess they could still end up with nothing but that seems increasingly unlikely.

  • Patrick Gearon

    Think in terms of Farage and Carswell having to carry Reckless.

  • I was pointing to Turgon’s ‘gap’ analysis of social conservative/left econ point which I don’t really see. While independents seem to be of the centre-left, the movement in Europe and US does seem more social liberal/right econ among organised groups and that is even more so among young people polled. Noise and movements are two different things. Of course, the electorate is older by demographic, so it may take a while. And yes, local elections, often on ATV (I think) will certainly through up some interesting results. All round a fascinating year.

  • Abucs

    I never thought it made much sense to put the National Socialist Labour Party on the right of politics, let alone the far right.

  • Antony Gilbert

    The myth that the working class in Britain are socialist minded. They never were even though they voted Labour. This is because they voted overwhelmingly based on class, not political ideology. They just wouldn’t vote for the toffy nosed Tories. Remember, New Labour got into bed with big business and privatized even more than the Conservatives but the working class were not put off at all. Once again class trumped everything.

    All the right wing needed all this time was a classless party. Now they have that party and the flood gates have opened. The working class are pouring over to UKIP. We should now expect the type of landslides we saw in the 1980’s when Thatcher somewhat managed to overcome the class issue. But this time the wins will be even bigger. I predict UKIP will reach 50% of the vote within 6 years.

    The last 1/4 century of failed liberal elitism is fast coming to an end.