Opinion: Ironically, the rise of UKIP makes Britain a more European place

UKIP logoUKIP’s relative success in the English local elections and South Shields by-election this week has met with predictable reactions across the political spectrum: from copycat politics and jealousy on the Tory right, to handwringing and downright despair on the centre left.

But while UKIP has succeeded in hoovering up disenchanted Tories by the thousand, its appeal is clearly much broader. In fact, the rise of UKIP’s populist anti-politics replicates a pattern played out across Europe since the crisis hit, from the Danish People’s Party to Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Ironically, with UKIP, Britain may now be joining the European mainstream.

Early indications show that while most UKIP support was lent by former Tories, sizeable chunks came from working class Labour and ‘none of the above’ ex-Lib Dems too. Their strong showing in South Shields shows that UKIP are far broader than a bunch of “retired half colonels living on the edge of Salisbury Plain,” as Nigel Farage himself put it. Professor John Curtice reports that Farage’s motley crew have done particularly well in areas with fewer graduates than average, more pensioners and more people with a strong religious identity.

All this makes UKIP far harder to pin down than its hallmark anti-Europeanism would suggest. Doubtless, immigration was a strong motivator, and some may have turned to the party in opposition to David Cameron’s pragmatism on issues like equal marriage. But it’s likely that Farage’s own brand of policy-lite pub talk has attracted at least as much support. Like Boris Johnson, his carefully crafted image as an anti-politician is the key to his success – and policies his weakest card.

Throw in a few more ingredients – economic pessimism, an unloved coalition and an underwhelming opposition – and the scenario played out this week looks more European by the day. After Grillo, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the True Finns and the Dutch Freedom Party, UKIP is the latest in a line of European populist parties to taste electoral success. Led by charisma, unburdened by the responsibilities of government and driven by economic insecurity, they are the easy option for the angry, the fearful and the dispossessed.

Ironically, the rise of Britain’s most anti-European party may in fact herald the ultimate Europeanisation of British politics: a multi-party system, where centrist coalitions become the norm rather than the exception. The joker in the pack is of course the British electoral system, which was never designed for such politics. Who knows what surprises that will throw up in the future?

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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25 Comments

  • Well observed, Giles… actually, a very amusing take on it.

  • Paul in Twickenham 4th May '13 - 9:36am

    There is a poll on the yougov website that asks people why they are voting UKIP. http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/05/03/immigration-and-europe-give-ukip-appeal/

    Gay marriage is way down the list. What is interesting is that “Want immigration reduced” is the runaway winner, miles (or is that “kilometres”) ahead of “Want Britain to leave the EU”.

    It would be interesting to see if there is a geographical correlation between UKIP success and concentrations of recent (primarily Slavic speaking) immigrants. If there is then it would appear to me that the main parties have no coherent strategy for responding to this challenge unless yelling “racist” is a strategy.

  • Martin Lowe 4th May '13 - 9:58am

    If UKIP can maintain their current level of popular support for the next few years without translating that level of support into seats, then it raises the topic of electoral reform again.

    UKIP actually were supporters of the ‘Yes To Fairer Votes’ campaign during the Referendum, but were criminally under-used by a badly-run ‘Yes’ campaign that was more interested in preaching to the converted.

  • Niklas Smith 4th May '13 - 10:55am

    Interesting and sensible observations, but I think not quite complete.

    As Paul in Twickenham points out, the two leading reasons given for voting UKIP by their voters are opposition to immigration and opposition to the EU. That brackets UKIP with a particular selection of European populist parties: the Danish People’s Party (one of the oldest and most successful), the Progress Party in Norway (probably the most similar to UKIP, in that they are also proponents of the free market and low taxes), the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Freedom Party and (to some extent) the True Finns.

    Beppe Grillo’s M5S is very different: it’s an anti-establishment party driven by disgust with political corruption och cronyism, attracting precisely the sort of young graduates who are least interested in UKIP. M5S forms a different strain of anti-politics along with the Pirate Party (which has won seats in the Icelandic parliament, Czech senate, European Parliament and regional parliaments in Germany thus far).

    Personally I would have preferred to face that kind of populism, but we have to deal with what we’ve got….

  • @jedibeeftrix – Err, no. I see no evidence at all that, for example, trade unionists or left-wing people more generally would hardly say that they didn’t mind Thatcher winning in 1979 or 1983 or 1987 because she was “one of us” and looking after their interests. I hardly see evidence of more left-wing people today saying that despite the Coalition being made up of Conservatives or Lib Dems, we look after their interests generally.

    I also see large numbers of people in Scotland who don’t feel part of Team UK, plus quite a few in Northern Ireland too. You celebrate shared history; not sure that Catholics in NI would wax so lyrically about that.

    Moreover, I do see myself as having a shared European history with my brothers and sisters across the EU. Our countries were torn apart by war again and again and again; it is thanks to the EU and the fact that we now work together to resolve peacefully problems that in the past would have thrown our young men onto the battlefield to die.

    It is sad that because of anti-European half-truths peddled by Farage and his ilk that we have so swiftly forgotten that the European Union has brought us peace – the greatest prize of all, and one that eluded our continent in the bloody years of the first half of the 20th Century. Brussels, Europe, the EU… thank you.

  • Martin Lowe 4th May '13 - 11:53pm

    I see @jedibeeftrix is banging out his regular anti-EU schtick again.

  • A Social Liberal 5th May '13 - 12:25pm

    I don’t understand the supposed loss of Labour votes to UKIP, the facts just don’t bear this out.

    *In South Shields the loss of vote was 1.51% – miniscule
    *All UKIP council gains were in places where the Tories were in power or were the largest party
    *UKIP only have 11 councillors in the north and midlands – In Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire they lost the majority of the seats they held.

    To try and spread the pain is disengenuous, Labour did not as well as they would have liked, but it is a far cry from the suggestions the press and other political parties are making.

  • A Social Liberal 5th May '13 - 12:29pm

    Damn

    Posted this in the wrong forum. Will post it in the right one.

  • nuclear cockroach 5th May '13 - 2:09pm

    The Lib Dems must defend their principles:
    – pro-environment, meaning low carbon
    – pro-Europe, meaning pro-EU, pro-EHCR
    – middle of the road economics, avoiding utopian illusions to the left and right

    Let other parties rant and rave negative nonsense about the environment and Europe.

  • As jedibeeftrix points out opposition to the big idea of Europe is not unique to the British. Traditionally it has not even been unique to the political Right. The Labour Party and Trade unions were originally against Britain joining Europe, The notion that UKIP represent a sort Anti-politics is also a little misleading, because it is a notion that is based on the idea that real politics exists without borders or the need to represent the desires of the electorate. UKIP came second in the popular vote here, came second in the last European elections and look very likely to come first in the next European elections. This suggests that a sizable proportion of the electorate are just not that keen on Europe or mass immigration. As a liberal I find this uncomfortable to think about, but self evidently UKIP represent very real concerns for a lot of voters.

  • Giles Goodall 5th May '13 - 9:13pm

    @Paul in Twickenham: Boston in Lincolnshire, which has the highest proportion of non-UK EU citizens outside London, returned 5 UKIP councillors out of 7. But in most other places around the country there was no such correlation.

    @Martin Lowe: The issue of electoral reform will definitely come back, immediately after the 2015 elections if not before.

    @Niklas Smith: The various populist parties tasting success across Europe certainly use different ingredients, but broadly follow the same recipe, even Grillo’s crew.

  • @jedibeeftrix – “I simply do not recognise a sufficiently congruent set of aims and expectations to assent to being governed by the common will of the EU.”

    You’ll find that “congruent set” in the EU Treaties – specifically articles 2 & 3 of the TEU if you care to look them up.

    Why do they apply to the UK? Why, because Parliament (Westminster) agreed that they should apply to the UK.
    Hence, your complaint largely boils down to “Parliament made a decision I don’t agree with, so it’s wrong”.

    That position though rather undermines your claim that, in the case of domestic UK politics, you believe in “the collective trust in shared aims and expectations that allows the people to put their destiny in the hands of another, safe in the knowledge that even if ‘their’ man doesn’t get the job then the other guy will still be looking after their best interests”.

    You clearly don’t trust the decisions that Parliament made based on your posts and, if so, it is unsurprising you don’t trust decisions made at EU level either. Fair enough, but no one is going to give you a personal veto over either Westminster’s or the EU’s decisions making processes.

  • @jedibeeftrix – being unabashedly pro-European may put me in a minority in the UK… and?

  • Giles Goodall 6th May '13 - 1:45pm

    @Glenn: I would not over-interpret UKIP’s support in the local elections as being a massive endorsement of its policies. I wonder if many voting for them know for example that they would like to sack 2 million public workers, increase defence spending 50% a year, and withdraw from UN cooperation on climate change? The real point is of course that UKIP is generally a policy-lite zone, which makes it a much more attractive electoral option.

    @Jedi: Do we take it that you do not, in fact, believe in the British system of representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty?

  • Giles, thank you for the reply
    I don’t think UKIPS success is an endorsement of everything they stand for, But if they win in the Euro elections it would be pretty hard to see that as anything but of an endorsement of their central policy.
    My view of UKIP is not high, but I think to an extent they have filled a vacuum for the Conservatives and Labours more traditionally minded voters. A lot of people are put off by the way professional politicians sometimes seem to be addressing the business of politics rather than representing their electorate. I don’t think that this mean that UKIP is anti-politics .
    I watch a lot of political coverage and the thing that strikes me is that voters sometimes seem to be an after thought bunged in between what analysts, the markets and business leaders have to say. In the past politicians used to talk about The Pound in Your Pocket, because they saw the need to address the electorate directly. It’s all got a bit abstract and removed, which I find worrying because it leads to disinterest from voters and complacency from politicians.

  • Giles Goodall 6th May '13 - 5:45pm

    @Glenn: These are all very important points. I agree there’s certainly a lot more that politicians of all colours can do to address people’s concerns from their point of view rather than that of the Westminster (or Brussels) bubble!

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