Is UKIP a credible force?

Today, I’m in Strasbourg, talking to the Council of Europe about British European policy. As well as Cameron’s speech and the on-going debates about the relationship with the ECHR, I will be considering how much weight we might give to UKIP in this context.

On the one hand, the party seems to be breaking free of its traditional base of euroscepticism, as voters come to see it as a more general party of protest. Witness how the EU is not the most important motivation for voting UKIP (Ford et al 2011). Likewise, we have to accept that the EU as an issue is not enough of a concern for the voters of Eastleigh today to explain all the votes that the party will get (regardless of whether they win or not).

But last week’s events surrounding the resignation of Marta Andreasen from UKIP – and her defection to the Tories – also need reflection.

Andreasen had worked in the Commission, before becoming a prominent whistleblower. UKIP made approaches shortly after exit from Brussels and she was given a prominent place in the 2009 European elections, as well as becoming the party’s Treasurer.

In the EP, she has been very active on committees, but always kept her distance from the party leadership. In large part, this seems to have been because her views on integration were not particularly in keeping and there was only so long that either side could hold their tongues. In the words of the party statement: “the woman is impossible.”

Talking with UKIP workers the sense is that this is all to the good and the party is better off without her. But such a view strikes me as precisely why UKIP does and will struggle to maintain its position.

Andreasen represented a clear attempt to reach out beyond the obvious constituency of the party, to more moderate voters, by showing that critical voices were welcome as much as out-right opposed ones. As someone with insider experience she brought something new to the table. As a Argentinian-born woman, she challenged the ‘Little Englander’ stereotype.

Now the party has no women MEPs – having lost its other one, Nikki Sinclaire, in 2010 – and the language bandied about by the party on both occasions has been less than measured.

In a party that only has limited representation in political institutions, the MEPs have always been central to the party’s operation, and these have always been as much a source of trouble as of strength. This was true in 1999, just as it was in 2004 (with Kilroy-Silk), as it is today. The weakness of the party leadership in managing that relationship highlights the clear limitations of resources and personnel in the party.

For all its momentuum, and the ever-present face of Nigel Farage on the news, the party remains a shoestring operation and one that will struggle ever more to keep up its current profile.