Will UKIP achieve a breakthrough in 2015?
In the wake of UKIP’s electoral success in last week’s local elections, many journalists have been quick to dismiss the possibility that UKIP could gain any seats at the upcoming general election. In particular, the difference in voting intentions in the past between local elections and general elections has been highlighted as to why UKIP will gain little to no ground in 2015.
However, it appears that UKIP may be able to make significant progress in the North, but in particular the North East. The North East constituency of Hartlepool appears to me to be a very interesting case. Hartlepool is part of a cluster of traditionally safe Labour seats in County Durham. On first glance, it still appears to be that way, with the incumbent Ian Wright having a majority of 5,509 at the last general election. However, UKIP had one it’s strongest showings in this constituency, securing 7 per cent of the vote. They also managed to gain two council seats in the recent local elections. Nigel Farage himself is also aware of the significance of Hartlepool in a push for representation in 2015. Speaking after a recent visit to Gateshead, Farage claimed that: “The North East is our fastest growing membership area and if I had to pick Hartlepool was an area we can make a substantial impact”. Their longest established branch is also located here, which has been very effective in galvanising support for UKIP.
But why is there support at all for UKIP here? It seems very clear that there is widespread disaffection with the Labour Party in Hartlepool. It is an area that is desperately lacking in employment opportunities, having never recovered from the de-industrialisation process of the late 20th century. New Labour’s stint in power did little to help the fortunes of the area, even though Hartlepool was represented by one of the most influential figures in the Labour Party, Peter Mandleson, and with Tony Blair occupying the neighbouring constituency of Sedgefield, little effective effort was made into the creation of job opportunities in the town or the wider area. Regeneration efforts have often been misguided and as a result have not proven beneficial, such as the now half empty and poorly maintained Marina development in Hartlepool. Expansion of the public sector has helped, but this did not go far enough and has been severely undermined by government cuts. The local Labour Council itself are also being seen as increasingly unpopular, particularly after the recent scrapping of a plan which cost £1.5 million to create for future development in Hartlepool which would of guided the development and regeneration of Hartlepool for the next 15 years. Also the creation of a £4m transport interchange which is only utilised by one of the local transport providers is also a hugely contentious issue.
As for the other parties, there is little support for the Conservatives and Liberals, particularly due to the high levels of local government cuts, which amount to £267 per head. Hartlepool also has the lowest spending power in the country and it is suffering from a household unemployment rate of 29 per cent. But the main underlying feeling towards the main parties is that none are prepared to commit to solving the long term economic problems of Hartlepool. The main reason for UKIP’s growth here is that they are different. They provide an alternative, and to the people of Hartlepool, whose needs for economic change have been marginalised for decades by the main parties welcome this alternative. This is even though UKIP contains members who were once supporters of the Thatcher government which accelerated the process of de-industrialisation. Even Neil Hamiliton, the disgraced ex-Tory MP received a warm welcome when he came to speak in Hartlepool.
There is also a rather ugly underlying reason as to this rise in the support of UKIP. After decades of high unemployment, many have sought to find different sources to blame for this ongoing issue. One of these is immigration. Even though there has been little immigration into Hartlepool, the politics of fear that is peddled by UKIP has resonated in the minds of portions of the electorate, and so they have subsequently blamed their economic woes on immigration. UKIP want to free our borders from EU regulation and exercise greater control over UK borders and seek to decrease the levels of immigration into this country. As a result, many feel with stricter immigration policies, there will be less competition for jobs and therefore it will be easier for people to seek employment here in an area in which even before the recession, had 19 people applying for each available job.
The challenge of UKIP in not just Hartlepool, but the rest of North East, particularly in the wake of the strong showing of UKIP in the South Shields by-election, needs to be met by the main parties through an effort to widely acknowledge the problems facing the North East. To do this they have to create dedicated policies to ensure the creation of better economic prospects in the North East in their manifestos for next year. Previous policy efforts in the North East have tended to focus on expansion of the public sector, but there also needs to be a recognition that on it’s own the public sector cannot make up the shortfall in employment, so long term incentives need to be offered to entice private sector firms into the area. As for regeneration efforts, parties need to abandon the “quick-fix” methods in the past, in which only a handful of developments or even just one is undertaken and is hailed as the solution to an areas problems. There needs to be a focus on longer term regeneration schemes which include a wide range of developments. Only when the main parties show a political willingness to develop and assist the economy of the North East will they be able to contain the rise of UKIP in the region.
Written by George Ward