UKIP voices deep-seated concerns in British society that liberals struggle to address.
In the ten years between 2001-11, Britain saw the steepest population growth of any decade since the census was first conducted in 1801. In England and Wales, over half this population increase was due to immigration. During the same period, the foreign-born population of the United Kingdom doubled to nearly 7 million. Given this context, it may seem unsurprising that when concerns about the economy first began to subside in the wake of the financial crisis, in 2013, immigration rose to become British voters’ top concern.
The political significance of immigration is compounded by the fact that public perceptions hugely overestimate its scale. For example, according to an Ipsos-Mori report from 2013, public opinion places the foreign-born population at 31%, while the official estimate is around 13%. There is evidence of a direct link between misperceptions and concern. This widespread anxiety about the numbers and impact of foreigners has fueled an unprecedented rise of parties with xenophobic agendas. In the last ten years, the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) all saw significant surges in the polls.
But whereas the BNP has experienced a spectacular demise since 2009 and the EDL is widely seen as toxic, UKIP is thriving. With its victory in the European election in May, the party became the first to top a nationwide poll ahead of both the Conservatives and Labour since 1906. But nothing about UKIP’s modest beginnings — as late as the 2005 general election, it obtained a mere 2.3% of the vote — foreshadowed its recent rise.
A turning point came in 2009, when UKIP first began to shift from a libertarian anti-European Union (EU) stance toward a more nationalist, anti-immigration discourse. This rebranding was key in earning UKIP its current success.
As has been the case with other right-wing parties in Europe — most notably the French Front National — UKIP obtained its greatest electoral successes by creating a message capable of appealing to working-class voters. The party’s support basis comprises white, male, uneducated voters, 85% of whom are over the age of 40, and with only 13% of university graduates. They are also poorer: only 23% live in households whose total income exceeds £40,000, compared with 33% of Tory and Labour voters combined.
The popularity of UKIP’s radical positions on the EU and on immigration suggests it filled a significant gap between the preoccupations of the electorate and the mainstream parties. This mismatch is now consciously exploited by UKIP, who brandish it as evidence of the detachment of the political elite.
Whereas the BNP has experienced a spectacular demise since 2009 and the EDL is widely seen as toxic, UKIP is thriving. With its victory in the European election in May, the party became the first to top a nationwide poll ahead of both the Conservatives and Labour since 1906.
UKIP poses as the standard-bearers of democracy and popular engagement. As Member of European Parliament (MEP) Bill Etheridge proclaimed at the party’s recent youth conference: “We are not a footnote in history. The British people are not going to go quietly into oblivion. Democracy is not an abstract concept … it’s the single most valuable thing about being British … If we fail to win seats [in the 2015 general election,] the people of this country will have lost their last chance of democracy.”
The “popular uprising” story is interwoven with descriptions of parliamentary democracy as a British invention under threat. From this perspective, the EU is committing a double betrayal of Britain: It is undermining both national integrity and the distinctively “British gift to the world” that is parliamentary democracy. UKIP, then, is not simply fighting to free the UK but, as Scottish MP David Coburn put it, to “liberate Europe from the EU.”
Prospects for Growth
UKIP’s tenacity as a political force is beyond doubt. However, partly owing to Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, it still has no representatives in parliament. What scale of national representation UKIP achieves at the upcoming election depends on whether it can continue to broaden its appeal and detoxify its brand, without losing the punch that has propelled its ascent.
The difficulty of striking the balance between maverick truth-telling and mainstream appeal is illustrated by UKIP’s most recent crisis, which exploded with revelations that at a training event for the party’s youth wing, MEP Etheridge cited Adolf Hitler, among others, as a model of oratory skill to be emulated.
Etheridge, who has previously stood up for freedom by being photographed with a golliwog, predictably mounted his defense along the “political correctness gone mad” line he is so fond of, arguing that recognizing Hitler’s public speaking skills does not amount to endorsing his other deeds. The party’s failure to force a “resignation” exposes an important structural weakness within UKIP: a party whose brand is based on rebellion has trouble disciplining its own members, without appearing to betray its core message.
In opposition to the maverick stance embodied by Etheridge, there has also been a concerted effort to moderate the party’s tone. UKIP’s triumph over more extreme right-wing movements is evidence of its ability to put out a socially acceptable expression of the xenophobic concerns that fuel its success. As a clear statement of intent, it is the only party in Britain to have a ban on membership for ex-BNP supporters.
MEP Steven Woolfe, the party’s new spokesman for migration — note the careful avoidance of the term “immigration” — is perhaps the best proponent of the sort of domesticated rhetoric that could end up unlocking the gates of Westminster for UKIP. He talks of an “ethical immigration policy,” and is in favor of giving people from all over the world the right to come to the UK, rather than arbitrarily bestowing this privilege on Europeans only. He highlights the need to calibrate numbers, so as to ensure that public services are not overstrained. These lines of argument will not only resonate with white British voters, but also with non-European ethnic minorities. Indeed, Woolfe’s catchiest sound bite is the promise that: “If you are an Indian doctor, we will treat you the same as a German doctor.”
Despite its excesses, UKIP is poised to redraw the electoral map of Britain. Even though it is unlikely to come anywhere higher than third place in the 2015 general elections, the party is already dictating the terms of the national debate and exerting significant disruption upon the Conservative Party, which has lost ownership of the issue of immigration. For the opposition, the worry is that UKIP’s ability to draw voters’ attention toward decidedly right-wing issues will force Labour to engage in debate outside of the policy areas where it easily scores points.
No matter how many seats it claims or fails to win, UKIP looks set to continue to wreak havoc on the British political scene.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.