The rise of UKIP. Lessons for the major political parties ahead of the General Election

By Emma Fox

This post is based on information presented at a recent panel discussion which took place at King’s College London in conjunction with Ipsos MORI. Watch the event online
The European Elections this May saw the first time since 1910 that neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a British national election. Instead it was UKIP who gained the most seats and they have continued to gain ground. In the recent Newark by-election, the Conservatives fought off strong competition from UKIP, but they did see their majority cut by more than half. With almost two thirds of UKIP’s European election voters planning to stay loyal in 2015, this gives them a stronger base than ever before ahead of the general election. But what can the other parties learn from UKIP’s rise?

This was the main focus for a debate at King’s College London on 27 May organised alongside Ipsos MORI. The following picks up three key challenges identified in this debate.

1. How to address the credibility shortfall?

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI shows that leadership is still a key (although declining) factor in determining the political preferences of voters.

leadershipThis importance of leadership is particularly problematic for Labour: a recent YouGov survey showed that, while people agree with Labour’s policies, they do not back the man behind them. Here, the problem is one of credibility. Only 23% of thinking Miliband would make a good Prime Minister.

Part of the problem with dealing with a lack of credibility is that, as Professor Blackburn suggested, there are no set criteria for a good party leader. Indeed, it is something of a moveable feast, with different things working for different parties. The leader needs to persuade voters that their image is best for the public, and this takes charisma.

Perhaps, as Miranda Green argued, the three main parties can learn something here from Nigel Farage, widely seen as the most charismatic of political leaders. With 51% believing UKIP highlights important issues other parties aren’t taking seriously, Farage has set a challenge for politicians to connect with the public in a different, and crucially in a less robotic, more ‘devil may care’, manner.

2. Economic credibility and key election issues: the need to tell good stories

Matthew Taylor, RSA, argued the Conservatives have the most compelling story ahead of the election, having worked hard to improve Britain’s economic situation. Ipsos MORI report this is considered the most important issue facing our country today. In good news for the Tories, economic optimism is on the rise and they are considered to have the best economic policies.

uk economyUnfortunately for the Tories the majority of the public haven’t felt the benefits: 84% of people reported the growth in the economy has had little or no impact on their standard of living. Although most also think their situation would be the same under labour. Nevertheless UKIP were ranked the lowest by far in terms of economic credibility. But their focus on immigration, found to be the second most important issue to voters, seems to have gained them voters who will remain loyal. For Lib Dems, their focus will be on local campaigns in local areas, now backed up by policies implemented in government. Miranda Green advises building on these policies, as well as presenting a manifesto which is compatible with other parties. In the lead up to the next election, coalition politics is very much on trial and any disagreements or party blame will undermine public confidence in both its ability to work, and in the Lib Dems themselves.

But is there a strategy which hasn’t been considered? Matthew Taylor argued that every Labour leader who has ever won an impressive election result has won it with a strong story about the future. But this time, no party has effectively articulated a future story and that’s partly because of the economic circumstances, where to talk about the future was considered complacent and out of touch. But with economic optimism now high, there is a space for stories about the future. The future is unoccupied terrain and if any of the major parties can start to talk about the future in a convincing way the game could change. We’ve talked about the crisis, and moving out of the crisis, but will any of the parties talk about where we go next?

3. Swaying the undecided

In 1993, 83% of the public identified with one of the three main parties. Today that figure has dropped to 67%. So are any of the parties reaching out beyond their usual voters to sway the undecided? With 45% of voters stating they might still change their minds in the weeks leading up to the last general election, it is proving more and more unpredictable. So what can the parties do?

A recent Guardian poll has highlighted a disconnect between the public and our politicians with 47% of respondents expressing anger towards politics/politicians and a further 25% expressing boredom. In contrast, only 2% claimed to feel inspired.

The problem is worst among under-30s. The Hansard Society, for example, predicts that voter turnout in this group in 2015 could be as low as 12%. This a group to which all parties could turn their attention to try and garner additional support, but it could take a change across the board.

Two thirds of under-25s would be more likely to vote for a party if they delivered their manifestos in a way that was easier to understand, and they are expressing a demand for parties to communicate more through social media channels. Some of the parties are starting to listen to these demands. Nick Clegg has assured us he will tweet his top 5 manifesto promises for under-25s, and UKIP has attempted to get #WhyImVotingUKIP trending on twitter. Unfortunately the latter seems to have backfired, but nevertheless, this is a group that parties need to try and engage.
But can Farage sway his own undecided single-handedly? This remains to be seen, but this seems to occupy his attention: he recently announced he is about to appoint a group of spokespeople to represent UKIP ahead of the election. A party source also stated they are determined to “promote more people reflective of society” and are working on their manifesto which will be launched in Doncaster in September. But is this enough to persuade the voters?

In summary, the next general election is set to be the most unpredictable to date. The major parties need to address the concerns of those who have turned away from voting, or perhaps never have, and tap into a pool of potential voters as yet untapped.


Does the EU matter? Part 2

By Louise Borjes

The second EU debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was somewhat of a repetition of the first one, as the leaders yet again clashed over jobs, immigration, and trade. Statistical claims and emotional rhetoric circulated, although the former to a lesser extent as personal attacks played a more central role this time. YouGov snap polls presented Farage as an even clearer winner than in the first debate, obtaining 68% with Clegg only receiving 27% of those asked.

It is clear where these two politicians stand in the question on EU membership – Clegg wants in, Farage wants out. It is less clear what the two biggest parties want. By not participating in this debate, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are visibly taking the backseat in this question. Since the second debate, YouGov has noted average figure of 13% for UKIP, compared to 11% before the debates. Does this point to a fundamental shift in British politics, and has this second debate offered greater clarity to what the implications could be for the 2015 General Election?

The answer to this is reflected by complexity and uncertainty. First of all, surveys have shown that EU membership is not important to many voters for the next General Election. This seems to be one of two possible reasons Labour and the Conservatives decided to take a step back and not focus on this. The second reason could be that they are internally divided, and that this causes them to focus on other issues on which they are unanimous.

The advantage of being unison in this question gives Clegg and Farage the opportunity to link it to other issues already on the agenda for next year’s election, such as the economy and immigration, subsequently adding EU membership to it.

What was even clearer in the second debate than in the first, was that Farage was more successful in doing so than his counterpart. Farage claimed that EU membership has only made it ‘good for the rich: cheaper nannies, cheaper chauffeurs, and cheaper gardeners’, by being able to employ foreign labour as a result of the free movement of people and that the membership has left a ‘white working class effectively as an underclass’. This rather explicit focus on the negative impact on EU membership in other issues could be seen as an attempt to pluck votes from both sides of the bigger Labour/Conservative camp to vote against EU membership and effectively supporting UKIP.

Although it is yet too early to pin down the exact implications, the debates between Clegg and Farage were an attempt to prove that the EU does matter, the latter appearing to be more successful in doing so than the former – given the results of recent polls showing an overall increase of support for UKIP and their opinions.

However, it seems that UKIP’s sophisticated ability in these debates – that is, being politically correct just enough to combine EU membership with other issues without losing face – has proven at least a short-term success. The disadvantage of being internally divided in this question is a weakness the big parties, particularly the Conservatives and David Cameron, most likely will continue to experience. The result of the complexity this combination of political dynamics demonstrates could therefore pose a fundamental shift in British politics. What is possible to conclude, though, is that the EU does matter. To what extent it will affect the political composition in Whitehall is yet to be seen.

Does the EU matter? Part 1

By Louise Borjes and Dr Benedict Wilkinson 

With the approach of the European Parliament elections in May and the General Election in 2015, the first debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage has reignited the debate about the UK’s role in Europe. The debate itself was, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominated by statistical claims and emotional rhetoric.

The UKIP leader toyed with the idea of what would happen if there were a referendum today on whether or not to join the EU. In this hypothetical situation, he claimed that the UK would not vote to join the EU owing to the ‘£55 million pounds a day membership fee’ and the fact that 485 million Europeans could move to the UK. The deputy prime minister, by contrast, focused on jobs and cross-border crime cooperation, arguing that Britain would be ‘better off in Europe – richer, stronger, safer’.

The popularity of both contrasting claims – and thus the ‘winner’ of the debate – seem fairly clear cut: YouGov carried out a post-debate poll, in which Farage stepped out as the winner with 57% of the reported by whereas Clegg only received 36%.

Debate results

This has come on the back of a considerable rise in UKIP’s political fortunes: a Sunday Times survey noted 7% for UKIP in January 2013 – the same period a year later showed a rise to 14%, topped at 17% in May 2013 according to The Sun.

What then could the implications be for the 2015 General Election? Although it is perhaps too early to make any great predictions, it does point to Farage and UKIP having booked a front-row seat in the general election next year and perhaps even more so in the upcoming European Parliament election in May. In the first place, this was a significant opportunity for UKIP to be seen to have the ability, popularity and power to compete with the three major political parties. Farage demonstrated that he is more than capable of facing up to (even facing down) his competition. Also, given that David Cameron and Ed Miliband both declined their invitations to participate in the debate, Farage could claim to be the face of Britain’s Eurosceptics.

The second point is that, despite Clegg’s consistently polished debating skills, Farage’s emotional and sensationalised rhetoric works effectively when discussing divisive issues, such as immigration. Apart from relating the debate to jobs and ‘the place of Britain in the world’, Clegg took a risk in holding onto the ‘Little England v Great Britain’ card and insisting repeatedly that Farage’s claims were based on dogma and made-up figures. This was a dangerous manoeuvre as it not only publicised Farage’s political claims on a broader stage but also drew both debaters into a ‘tit for tat’ round of claim and counter-claim. Ultimately, Farage’s ability to play on popular emotions meant that his factual claims garnered greater legitimacy and authority than those of Clegg. The corollary is that, as recent polls have shown, the Liberal Democrats have dropped even further in the polls.

The third point (argued also by the Guardian’s Owen Jones), is that connecting the debate on EU membership to broader issues likely to feature in all four parties’ manifestos in next year’s General Election was an effective way of gaining support both for the European Parliament elections and UKIP more generally. Thus, his oft-repeated claim that the cost of EU membership (‘£55 million a day’) in a recovering economic climate is unfair, particularly amongst those on low incomes, allowed Farage to generate more support not only for the European Parliament election in just two months time but also for next year’s General Election. In an Opinium/Observer poll presented shortly after the first debate, UKIP had increased their stake by one percentage point to 15% whilst the Liberal Democrats remained on 10%.

Yet, the effect of this small change on the popularity of the parties and the impact of this on the upcoming elections is difficult to determine after this first debate alone. The candidates’ performances in the second debate will perhaps shed more light on what the future might hold for the UK in the EU and the 2015 General Election.