UKIP threat overestimated. Party isn’t a major force

UKIP will not be able to treat future General Elections in the same way as by-elections, as voters are likely to behave differently when determining who actually walks into Downing Street

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James Downes
On 7 January 2015 08:37

Much has been written of late about the insurgency of the United Kingdom Independence Party in British Politics. Recent by-election victories in Clacton and Rochester, combined with the European Parliament elections in 2014 have led many in the media to argue that UKIP could become a major electoral force in British Politics.

However, there are a number of institutional hurdles which UKIP face if they are to ever be regarded as a ‘major force’ in British Politics, which I detail in my new paper published today via the Parliament Street think tank.

A 'major force' can be defined as gaining significant Westminster representation in the form of a double-digit number of Members in Parliament. This would encompass maintaining the number of elected representatives in Britain’s first order election over an extended period of two or more General Elections.

The definition of ‘a major force’ can also constitute a more subtle influence over the political agenda, and consequently, the policies of the main political parties. Institutional hurdles such as the type of electoral system used can create obstacles for political parties, in particular for smaller parties.

Elections to the House of Commons, the UK’s only first order election, uses the First Past The Post system. The Liberal Democrats have consistently faced significant institutional obstacles in the form of the First Past The Post electoral system and the same institutional mechanism provided an insurmountable obstacle for the Social Democratic Party in the 1980’s.

Today, this system restricts UKIP’s ability to become a ‘major force’ in British politics, as gaining seats requires a geographically concentrated share of the vote in a constituency. For example, in the 2010 General Election, UKIP won 3.1 percent of the national vote, but did not win a single seat. Meanwhile, the Greens won just 1 percent of the vote, and gained representation in Westminster.

This is in accordance with a theory in political science commonly known as ‘Duverger’s Law’, which notes that First Past the Post institutionally favours a two-Party system and inhibits multi-partyism. Under Proportional Representation, as used in second order elections to the European Parliament, UKIP is a ‘major force’, as their vote does not need to be geographically concentrated.

UKIP is therefore institutionally restricted to being a ‘major force’ only in European elections under Proportional Representation. However, because European Parliamentary contests are considered second order elections, UKIP’s sustained presence cannot be considered a ‘major force’ in the context of this article, which requires significant representation in a first order national level election.

Recently, UKIP have shown that they can become a ‘threat’ under First Past The Post. In by-elections during this parliament, the party came second in South Shields, Wythenshawe and Eastleigh. The party polled over 18 percent in Rotherham, South Shields, and Wythenshawe and Sale East, and over 10 percent in Barnsley Central and Middlesbrough.

More recently, the party took the seats of Clacton and Rochester, albeit helped by the defection of sitting MPs. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election, UKIP came within 617 votes of taking Labour's safe seat.

While these elections do not change a government, it does show that UKIP can be a threat even under First Past the Post. Moreover, it shows that UKIP can poll well even without the presence of a local base, volunteers, or an established canvassing operation.

In other words, UKIP polled well in seats in which “the party had hardly any previous presence” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014.) However, the party will not be able to treat future General Elections in the same way as by-elections, as voters are likely to behave differently when determining who actually walks into Downing Street.

While by-elections can be used as a protest vote, often directed against the government or the mainstream parties, General Elections determine governments. Moreover, during General Elections, the increased coverage of the main parties is likely to mean that UKIP could struggle to gain the attention it received during the recent by-election campaigns.

Therefore, the task of becoming a major force at a General Election remains difficult for UKIP. While current conventional wisdom could lead us to the conclusion that UKIP are poised to become a ‘major force’ in British Politics (Ford & Goodwin, 2011), this ignores the practical constraints of winning seats en masse in the House of Commons.

To do this, UKIP must build up local political infrastructure (e.g. canvassing operations, and a local volunteer base), which is currently one of its biggest weaknesses. In addition, as UKIP are “especially vulnerable to being seen as a wasted vote” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014:221), it must convince voters it can win locally.

If the party can succeed in these two areas, this will allow them to develop a target seat strategy to gain MPs.

James Downes is a political consultant and contributor to the Parliament Street think tank

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