UKIP as ‘Britain’s third party’?

I have had the opportunity to research UKIP for many years now, having firstly worked on the party in the mid-1990s.

In that time, I have witnessed its rise from a small group of dedicated campaigners, working solely on the issue of  getting the UK out of the EU, through its electoral break-through in the European Parliament elections in 1999, into its current phase of increased media profile and talk becoming a consolidated part of the party political system. The headlines of recent weeks (“UKIP ‘are third force in British politics’“, “Ukip deserves to ‘be taken seriously‘”) would seem to point towards that being so.

However, my long memory was stirred by this talk: we have been here before. Talk of a sea-change was common in 2004, following UKIP’s success in coming second (with help from Kilroy-Silk) in the EP elections. Thus the Mail said that “the spectacular success of UKIP in knocking the Lib Dems into fourth place, leaving Labour and the Tories with less than 50 per cent of the vote between them, has (for now at least) rewritten the electoral map. We are witnessing a great surge of protest from a public that has had enough.”  The Daily Star wrote about UKIP as “a major political force”, with (then campaign leader) Nigel Farage “boasting” that “UKIP is now unstoppable.”

A quick peek at the Google Trends data for searches on “UKIP” highlights the reality: within months, Kilroy-Silk had been ejected from the party, which entered into a period of in-fighting, ultimately resulting in a dispiriting performance in the 2005 general election. With the exceptions of the elections in 2009 (EP) and 2010 (UK), UKIP has not secured a structural position in either the media or party politics.

Even the recent media interest does not (yet) represent a change to this, given that much of it can be associated with a concentration of specific events (the PCC elections, the Rotherham fostering story and the three November by-elections). Indeed, as the second graph shows, there has already been a significant down-turn in searches on the party from the initial spike in late November.

In short, I would return to the hypothesis I set out some years ago on the tensions that UKIP has to confront. On the one hand has been successful in exploting its initial niche as an (EU) protest party. On the other, it now suffers from a number of internal difficulties in moving beyond this niche.

Firstly, it lacks an ideological basis. The party is held together by little more than its dislike of the EU. A read of the 2010 manifesto reveals a collection of populist measures, only made possible by assumed (huge) savings from leaving the EU. As Farage himself is often heard to say, UKIP is not just the Tories with a ‘proper’ European policy, but a much broader church. This makes it much harder to generate a coherent and comprehensive programme of government.

Secondly, it lacks depth of resources. Both money and personnel are in short supply for the party. Even with the recent influx of members in recent weeks, membership is roughly 20,000, or roughly 30 per Commons constituency (thanks to Tim Bale for that observation), hardly enough to support either an extensive campaigning strategy (even if it could be afforded): the Green’s 2010 strategy of pouring everything into one constituency isn’t viable. Likewise, the party leadership has been dominated by the considerable figure of Farage (it’s hard to see who else would warrant a piece of the kind the BBC produced this week); only Kilroy-Silk make a similar impact and that did not end well.

Indeed, this points to the third weakness. With its very democratic structure of governance, it is open to individuals seeking to maximise their power and influence. This was discussed by Adebi and Lundberg in a very useful analysis: essentially, the number of posts exceeds the number of moderate (in terms of party policy) individuals, making it easy for those with more radical agendas to gain influence. UKIP has had three major ruptures over personnel and policy since its foundation in 1993, each of which nearly killed it off: even today, the party suffers from defections (e.g. Nikki Sinclaire) by senior figures.

The media like a good headline, and Farage undoubtedly provides good copy, but to present UKIP as the ‘third party’ is a vast over-extrapolation, both of the party and of voters. Just as 2004 didn’t translate into 2005, and 20090 didn’t translate in 2010, so I would expect UKIP’s performance in the 2015 general election to remain a pale imitation of their 2014 European elections performance, even if the latter does leave UKIP as the best represented party in the EP.