A recent opinion poll has put UKIP on 15 percent, an new high for the party. This is probably a bit generous, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that this feisty little party is becoming established as a permanent fixture on the British political landscape, and we should all be thankful for it. Even if you disagree with their policies, it can’t be denied that it has shaken the established parties out of their complacency. And British politics needs shaking up, in the way Thatcherism and Blairism did.
As UKIP have become more prominent, more people have made an effort to find out more out them, and increasing numbers like what they see. And this is a self- reinforcing pattern; every time UKIP hit a mile-stone they get mentioned in the media, causing more people to take a closer look at them, and thus gaining them new support. To be sure, for some the party remains as a protest vote that the Lib Dems used to benefit from. But for many, UKIP’s policies might just be the missing link.
UKIP gets called a radical party. But it is only radical when viewed through the prism of the social-democratic consensus that holds sway over the three other parties and much of the media. For these groups, the debates on Europe, immigration, the role of the State, and Britain’s place in the world, had been to bed long ago. All they disagreed on were the minor technical details. Their worldviews were fundamentally the same. The consensus had become so well deeply embedded that it’s hardly surprising that they genuinely seem rather perplexed that people want to talk about them, let alone change things!
For the average punter, UKIP are more in tune with their take on things, in contrast to a political elite safely ensconced in a Westminster bubble. For example immigration is a concern to many people, even if they feel uncomfortable discussing it. An overwhelming majority of people want criminals to be more vigorously punished, and building more prisons is a logical development of that view. Grammar schools aren’t a hot button topic for most people, but they are viewed positively, and the list goes on.
However it’s not all sunshine and lollipops for the Purple Team. There are several serious hurdles to be overcome.
Organisation: Part of UKIP’s appeal is that it isn’t like the other parties. The party isn’t whipped, Branches are left to their own devices, and members are famously blunt and openly spoken. It’s a little bit ramshackle and chaotic, but they muddle-through. It’s all rather British, and in contrast to the slick, disciplined shared consciousness that is the image of the other parties. However there are obvious down sides to this: Giving members carte blanch to engage with the press and public is certainly engaging, but is also a recipe for a PR disaster. With UKIP set to feel the glare of publicity even more as 2014 and 2015 approach, the party needs to find a balance between keeping the light touch that engenders it to people, while keeping an eye out for the loose canons.
Resources: Unlike the Tories, with their millionaire backers, and Labour with the Trade Unions, UKIP have no large benefactors. Although they are in the black, they lack the sort of war chests that the other parties enjoy. Instead, like the Lib Dems, local branches have had to learn to be self sufficient. This matters. Leaflets aren’t free. You can have the best policies in the world, but if nobody gets to hear about them it’s all for nothing. To be sure, UKIP is increasing its membership, (having recently exceeded 20,000 members). As well as putting money into the coffers of the Party, it also means more boots on the ground. This is especially true for UKIP, as they have a far higher proportion of active members than the other parties. Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall have been visiting Wall Street types in the US with aims of securing financial backers. But for the time being at least, UKIP will continue to fight on a shoestring budget.
Tribalism: Blind party loyalty and tribalism are not unique to British politics, but we do seem to have it by the bucket load. In reality, only a third of parliamentary seats are really up for grabs each election, with the remaining two thirds being more or less secure for the incumbent. The Inner Cities are Labour, the Country Side Tory, with the Lib Dems strong in the South West with a handful of suburbs elsewhere. Safe Seats exist for a number of reasons, but a motivating factor is simply animosity towards ‘the other side’. As tragic as it is, a zombie Jimmy Saville in an SS uniform could win a seat in Parliament so long as he wore the right rosette in the right place. And although UKIP are making solid progress in attracting voters from across the spectrum, they are still too dependent on traditional Tory votes. And for too many Tory voters in marginal seats, fear of letting in Labour is enough to stop them voting UKIP, even if they prefer them.
Perception: As mentioned previously, part of UKIP’s appeal is its cheeky amateur nature. They’re entertaining, and a bit different, but can they be trusted to do a good job? UKIP are second only to the Conservatives in their number of MEP’s, and stand a very good chance of coming first in the Euro Elections in 2014. This will help their reputation, but UKIP need councillors before they get MP’s. And to get councillor’s it needs to convince voters that it is a serious party, capable occupying every seat in the Cabinet. At the moment there is an over reliance on Nigel Farage (and to an extent Paul Nuttall) as the face of UKIP. As the party grows it needs to expand its base of recognisable faces. Steven Woolfe and Alexandra Swann, for example, are both very good in front of the camera, and both go a long way to countering the Party’s image as one of Angry White Men. UKIP would also do well to continue to support Young Independence. It punches well above its weight online, and is critical to recruiting members outside the usual happy hunting grounds. UKIP are also starting to get over their historic problem of being seen as a single issue party. Plans to replace to the logo will help them in that sense too.
Another relatively easy way to boost its credentials would be to form a proper Shadow Cabinet, with a designated spokesperson for each major Cabinet role. (This must include a designated Foreign Affairs Spokesman, which they shockingly lack.)
Those hoping for a national tidal wave of UKIP support will be disappointed. In fact I predict that it won’t get a single MP in 2015. But it doesn’t need too. Its mere presence is already influencing the debate. Does anybody think David Cameron would be even thinking about an In/Out referendum if UKIP wasn’t breathing down his neck and draining away his activists? The Right of Tory Party feel emboldened to make their voices heard on benefits, immigration and crime, their simple argument being ‘if we don’t talk about this, UKIP will.’
In fits and busts, UKIP will continue to grow. Every threshold it crosses will bring more support, but also more scrutiny. Detractors will look for sticks with which to beat them, and supporters will expect more for their money and pavement pounding. This will ultimately strengthen and professionalise the Party.
UKIP are at a critical juncture in their development. They stand on the brink of breaking through to becoming a truly national party. It would be a tragedy for them and for British politics if it failed.