Sod the Lot

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The UK Independence Party saw unprecedented levels of popularity and support in the 2009 European elections. Now, just over a year later, the country faces the strong possibility of a hung parliament; for the first time in many eligible voters’ memories. What impact does this have for UKIP? Firstly, UKIP has never fought a general election in which a hung parliament has been a realistic prospect, and so there is no data how the party would perform in this electoral territory. Yet more importantly, their popularity surge in 2009 may have a positive impact on their performance in May.

UKIP was founded in 1993, shortly after the election of John Major’s government. It was not a strong government, nor was it a hung parliament. The 1997 Blair government was elected with a landslide and none of the following elections provided the realistic event of a hung parliament. As such, UKIP has never fought an election anywhere in Britain in the shadow of a potential hung parliament. Simply put: history cannot tell us how this party could perform in such electoral territory.

Generally speaking, disillusioned voters in general elections will switch to one of the other three main parties. This is quite obvious with the Liberal Democrat poll surge in recent days, and the fact that the two main parties in power in the last century should be on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Minority parties are just that: minorities.

Minority parties are generally used as protest votes. A lot of minority parties don’t have more than two or three centre policies – such as UKIP before Nigel Farage expanded the parties’ policies to appeal to a much larger support base. Most people don’t vote for a minority party because they actually want them to run the country, but because they want to make their opinions known. In UKIP’s case, this would seem to be the case. But this assumption does not hold water as their support has grown to the point where this minority party is having an impact, whether the political elite like it or not. In Europe, UKIP has had a substantial presence for some time. That presence is now making fresh attempts to hit Westminster.

What makes UKIP different from other minority parties (and indeed, any of their own battles in previous general elections) is that the 2010 general election comes only a year after the 2009 European elections which saw UKIP come in second to only the Conservative Party, carrying 16.5% of the vote.

A year is a long time in politics, but the European elections of 2009 showed dissatisfaction amongst the British public with the EU. Nearly two and a half million people voted for a party whose main policy was to remove Britain from the European Union. Two and a half million people felt strongly enough about Europe to go to a polling station and vote in an election that the majority of the electorate ignore.

Would that translate to a general election? Not exactly, no. It would be ridiculous to even suggest that 16.5% of the vote in May will go to UKIP, or any minority party whatsoever. But that 16.5% may well translate into a rise in their vote in a general sense. The Liberal Democrats are a famous example of a party with widespread support, usually gaining just under 20% of the popular vote, but getting nothing like 20% of the seats in Westminster. UKIP may be looking at a similar (on a smaller scale) case this time around.

As far as we can tell, UKIP have serious ambitions for this general election. They have called for voters to ‘sod the lot’ (referring to the three main parties) and are campaigning tirelessly in the south-east, the new heart of Eurosceptic Britain, where ‘vote UKIP’ posters still decorate countryside hedges and farm gates from 2009. UKIP’s main campaign will likely be focused in Buckingham, where former leader Nigel Farage is standing against the Speaker for the House of Commons, John Bercow. Buckingham is in the ‘blue belt’ of the south east, where many constituencies have a strong history of voting Conservative. Such a strong history, in fact, that most parties (including the otherwise major parties of Labour and the Liberal Democrats) don’t bother with serious campaigns, at least for the MP’s seat.

Yet as far as can be seen, UKIP is running a serious campaign, at the very least in terms of publicity. Of course, if Farage wins in Buckingham, the publicity will be incredible, but even if this does not happen (and it is fairly unlikely) UKIP are quite clearly reaching out to gain widespread support. Buses in Buckinghamshire (and in virtue of their respective routes, over a wide part of the south east) are carrying their slogans; candidates are standing in a large number of constituencies to challenge MPs that UKIP view as supporting Britain’s involvement in the European Union; articles have even been appearing about UKIP on MSN news (which is not precisely the hub of online political gossip.)

Parties do not, as a rule, fund campaigns that will achieve nothing. In the larger parties, it is a waste of time and resources and can lead to embarrassing defeats, or look rather desperate. In smaller parties, there isn’t the budget to allow such campaigns without some kind of profit to the party. The fact that UKIP is supporting campaigns in so many constituencies this time around suggests that they believe the publicity they will gain will be supremely beneficial, or that they are seriously out to win a few seats.

So UKIP are fighting in the electoral battlefield of a potential hung parliament for the first time. Polls, when they do acknowledge the presence of the grey ‘other’ option, show no significant changes in those numbers. Yet UKIP is giving it all it’s got, regardless of this new atmosphere: or, in light of 2009, perhaps because of it.
Of course, this does not mean for a moment that UKIP could possibly become a government. Even if the Liberal Democrats had no such poll surge, and the country was entirely sick and tired of both Labour and the Conservatives, it would be almost ludicrous to think that the people, en masse, would turn to UKIP and vote them into power. But this isn’t stopping UKIP from heavy and prominent campaigning.

Their focus in the south-east leads to a new possibility: that UKIP may (though it is unlikely) gain a seat or three in the next opposition. The south-east ‘blue belt’ is one where calling the electoral process to elect an MP a ‘contest’ is almost a joke. The Liberal Democrats contest for the local councils, and occasionally will make a fight for the constituency seat. Labour are nowhere to be seen or heard. Yet minority parties, as of 2009, can be very much seen and heard due to dissatisfaction with the two main political parties. Prominent minority parties are arguably more likely to collect votes in uncontested areas than mainstream parties who do not make any effort with campaigning. It is possible that UKIP’s strong campaigning in areas such as Aylesbury Vale and Buckingham may produce unthinkable results in other areas of the country.

In the atmosphere of a closely contested general election, minority parties can potentially pick up voters disillusioned with their regular parties. Any party with a dominant presence is going to make better gains than a party which does not contest the seat. With UKIP being so obvious in the south east, it is conceivable that their efforts will produce publicity results, and may even an actual seat in Westminster.

At any other time, UKIP would undoubtedly get nothing more than they ever do from general elections. But at a time when the three main parties are struggling to keep their support bases, and in the wake of the success of 2009, the story may change – however slightly.

Article by Claire Porthouse. Edited by Marc Geddes.