UKIP’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.