Over the weekend Britain’s political class has been reverberating from the latest upsurge in support for the anti-European Union UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). In the early hours of Friday morning it became apparent that UKIP had just won its first member of parliament, while on Sunday the papers released a new poll claiming that UKIP now has the backing of 25 percent of voters. This apparent surge also comes in the wake of UKIP winning Britain’s European elections back in May. Nowhere is the shock being more acutely felt than in the Conservative party; for it has been Conservative MPs, Conservative party donors, and, most significantly, Conservative voters who have been defecting to UKIP. Yet now growing numbers of working-class Labor voters are also being converted. Not since Thatcher has this section of British society been galvanized by a right of center platform.
For some time now the UKIP-base has been characterized as a bunch of Shire Tories in exile. The average UKIP voter was pictured as some ruddy faced ex-colonel still ranting about the empire. Yet since the 2010 election, when UKIP received just 3 percent of the vote, the party has expanded significantly. Today UKIP’s strongest support comes from the Thames estuary region: once working-class areas of Kent and Essex that switched to the Conservatives for Mrs. Thatcher. It is here, in Rochester, that a Conservative MP recently abandoned his party and will seek reelection on a UKIP ticket in November. A little to the north in Essex is the by-no-means affluent coastal town of Clacton. There the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell also switched to UKIP and last week gave the party its first parliamentary seat.
In Clacton the transition from Tory to UKIP was dramatic. Carswell won 60 percent of the vote for his newly adopted party, whereas he had won 53 percent of the vote for the Conservatives back in 2010. But last week there was a second by-election taking place in England, and this one was in many ways far more significant than the result in Essex. In the Labor stronghold Heywood and Middleton–a northern district in Manchester–UKIP surged to second position with 38 percent of the vote, despite having received only 2.6 percent at the last election. Indeed, Labor managed to beat UKIP by just six hundred votes.
Plenty of excuses have been found for this result. Some have suggested that the Rotherham sex abuse scandal may have helped UKIP’s popularity in the North. Undoubtedly, many Labor supporters have been alienated by Ed Miliband’s woefully unpopular leadership and see Labor as still dominated by the liberal metropolitan elite that took over with Tony Blair. Similarly, many Conservative voters are turned off by their party elite and suspect David Cameron of not being truly committed to the party’s traditional core principles. But the ongoing attempt to frame UKIP as a mere party of protest isn’t convincing, for in reality UKIP is succeeding by speaking to a popular, and essentially conservative, public sentiment.
Yes, UKIP is first and foremost a party that opposes mass immigration and the undemocratic/big government EU that makes that mass immigration inescapable, but UKIP also taps into something far deeper. The party’s leader Nigel Farage, ever eager to be photographed in village pubs, pint in hand, is the self-styled politician of the common man. At the same time, his taste for dressing as if off for a hunting weekend on a country estate seems intentionally evocative of an older England. The phrase that Farage uses to sum up his party’s worldview is “patriotic capitalism” and he has been quite unabashed about claiming the mantle of being the heir to Thatcher for his party. With an emphasis on tax cuts for low earners and clamping down on welfare cheats, his party has immediate appeal for the aspirational working class and the small trader.
Much of UKIP is anathema to Britain’s political consensus. The party provoked a frenzy of gleeful outrage by being the only one to voice ambivalence about the introduction of same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Farage and others in UKIP have suggested that Britain’s nationalized health service would function better if run by businessmen, and several senior figures in the party openly refer to themselves as libertarian. Indeed, while UKIP backs expanding the country’s armed forces it is also decidedly isolationist and has opposed much of the Middle East intervention of recent years.
With UKIP’s support growing, figures on the right of the Conservative party such as Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg have been advocating the Tories make an electoral pact with UKIP. So far Cameron’s primary response has been to somewhat up the rhetoric on Europe and immigration and to warn conservative voters that if they vote UKIP then they risk splitting the center-right and helping Labor to power. The problem is, as seen in Heywood and Middleton where the Tories polled just over 3,000 votes, while Labor and UKIP both received over 11,000, UKIP now appears the party best able to challenge Labor in the North. Similarly, with the collapse in support for the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, who have their stronghold in the rural West Country, UKIP could become the primary challenger there too.
If the latest opinion poll putting UKIP on 25 percent is accurate, and depending on how that vote distributes itself, some are predicting UKIP could take over one hundred seats at the next election. UKIP appears to be good news for popular conservatism, but if Cameron won’t get serious about immigration, Europe, and intrusive government, then it could be bad news for the Conservative party.