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.


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