…but that does not mean you can’t be a back-seat driver
Labour’s predictable victory in a recent spate of byelections across England was not seen as the main story of that night. That accolade goes to UKIP, which succeeded in coming second in two of the contests and third in another. This led Nigel Farage, the leader of the party, to proclaim that UKIP was now the ‘third party’ in British politics.
Is there any truth to this grand statement? Perhaps the answer to this question depends in part on whether it is indeed possible to ‘rank’ parties in a straightforward manner, and if so, by what measure.
UKIP is a small, single-issue party that would like Britain to exit from the EU. It is a protest vote for disaffected voters, who often vote Conservative, and is riding a wave of popularity based on contingent, ever-changing circumstances (in a recent poll, 56% of Britons said they would vote to leave the EU). In the wake of the Eurozone crisis, its popularity has inevitably risen, not least because hardly any British politicians seem willing to lay out the economic and political case for continued British membership. (Fortunately, our recent contributor, Sophie Goodrich, debunks a few myths about the apparently wondrous Swiss model.) David Cameron’s falling popularity, along with that of the coalition government, may also have contributed to the turn towards UKIP. It has therefore done well in recent voter surveys, and occasionally receives better polling scores than the Lib Dems (who are down to 13% in the latest Guardian/ICM poll).
This does not mean it is, or will be, Britain’s third party though: at least, not if its ranking is determined by some combination of votes received and seats won. For that it would need a solid base and representation. UKIP has astonishingly fluid support, having achieved an impressive (or embarrassing, depending on how you look at it) 16.5 per cent of the vote at the 2009 European elections (based on a turnout of 34.48 per cent). One year later, in the 2010 general elections, which received significantly more attention and participation (a much larger 65 per cent turnout), UKIP won a rather more modest 3.1 per cent (918,000 votes), culminating in no parliamentary representation. The Lib Dems by contrast won 6.8 million votes – a 23 per cent share – leading to 57 seats. Don’t expect that substantial difference to entirely disappear. To be clear, UKIP did not win – and has never won – a single seat at Westminster.
It may be that UKIP is developing as a force to be reckoned with, but it may also be a jump to believe the party is developing a solid core voting bloc. As the Conservatives are in government with the Lib Dems, the right is disappointed at what it sees as a watering-down of traditionally conservative (small-c) policies. The grassroots are increasingly disaffected and “bristle with indignation”. This gives UKIP its cue to enter the fray.
UKIP generally does not eat into Lib Dem support though. The Lib Dems were once seen as a protest vote too, but had begun to develop a core voting bloc of centre-left students, intellectuals and old people. These groups arguably feel betrayed by many government policies, but if they choose to vent their fury at the ballot box, it is more likely to be for the genuinely centre-left Labour Party than for right-wing UKIP candidates. If the Lib Dem share of the vote does fall to a level that corresponds with its current poll ratings, its representation will fall, for sure, but it will not be completely wiped out. Many Lib Dem backbenchers will lose their seats, but Lib Dem ‘strongholds’ are likely to remain loyal. With 18.3 per cent of the vote in 2001, the Lib Dems won 52 seats. A five percentage point drop would hurt a lot. But it wouldn’t consign them to oblivion.
Yet UKIP still has a claim to be an increasingly significant force in British politics, if not perhaps the ‘third party’ in electoral terms.
It may not be particularly helpful to award political parties an ordinal ranking. By way of example: you might currently say, based purely on parliamentary representation, that the Conservatives are the first party, Labour second, and the Liberal Democrats third. However, this would not straightforwardly capture the balance of power in Westminster. Why rank Labour, with no representation in the executive and a minority group in the legislature, ahead of the Liberal Democrats, who not only sit in Cabinet but also vote with the Government’s majority on most legislation? Unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats are in a position to directly implement a fair number of their manifesto pledges (despite some well-noted compromises struck with their coalition partners).
If you do want to construct a ranking, perhaps a better way of framing the issue is, to what extent is a party likely to be able to influence executive and legislative decision-making, either now or in the future? Looked at in this way, then if you did want to award the parties an ordinal rank, then the Conservatives and Labour come out top (they have greatest current and future potential influence), with presumably the Liberal Democrats somewhere behind them, as they are not realistically going to form a government of their own (any time soon).
On this measure, UKIP need not actually win any seats in Westminster to be considered a significant (or if you like, third) force in British politics. All it needs is to be able to exert a significant influence on executive or legislative decision-making. This it might do, for example, by driving the Tories to the right in an attempt by the Conservative leadership to prevent both voters and MPs from defecting to UKIP. In many respects, Cameron’s shifting rhetoric suggests that this has already happened.
UKIP’s influence is felt in Westminster beyond the Conservative party. Labour has itself headed to the ‘right’ over Europe, as it seeks to dominate the centre ground, which has shifted in that direction. And UKIP can take a lot of credit (or perhaps blame) for that change in the terms of the debate.
If the Conservatives fail to return a majority at the next election, it is likely that Cameron will be heading for the exit. As is often the case in such situations, it is probable that self-reflection upon defeat will lead the Conservatives to turn back to their base. They cannot motivate their voters by adopting policies of the radical left; instead, they may well pick the brains and seek the support of the reactionary right. Just as the Tea Party insurgents came to dominate a generally more centrist (relatively speaking) Republican party, so the supporters of UKIP’s position, offering a message to which the majority of the British electorate is currently sympathetic, might come to steer the direction of Conservative policy – with respect to Europe, at the very least. If these individuals are known as ‘Conservatives’ rather than ‘UKIP members’, does this in anyway diminish the de facto influence of the ‘UKIP movement’? Probably not.
Once again, First-Past-The-Post’s dependence on geographical distribution will determine parliament’s composure in a skewed and disproportionate manner. It is a system that suits large, established parties, and tends to sideline small parties like UKIP. We might expect UKIP’s poll ratings to wither away come 2015. (Says Babak: “If they beat the Lib Dems into fourth place in terms of vote share I’ll eat my words. If they beat them into fourth place in terms of parliamentary representation, I’ll eat my hat”; says Sam: “I’m looking forward to that.”) However, the trend towards unity on the Left and division on the Right is unprecedented in modern British political history, and presents both opportunities and challenges for those pursuing a progressive agenda. The rise of UKIP is neither a threat to be taken lightly, nor one to be dismissed as a mere passing phenomenon.