After tonight’s second Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage debate, 38% of viewers more likely to vote for UKIP according to a Guardian ICM poll. And there is a real prospect that the party could break through to become one of Britain’s two or three largest parties explain Dr Rob Ford and Dr Matthew Goodwin.
UKIP is making waves. The TV and radio debates between Nigel Farage and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have hit the headlines, as did our own Chatham House debate with Nigel Farage on Tuesday (1 April) on our new book, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain.
The growing popularity of UKIP and the anti-EU message is worrying not only Britain’s established parties, but also politicians across Europe. Guy Verhofstadt – the former Belgian prime minister who may become the next President of the European Commission – told a packed meeting at the University of Manchester a few days ago that the idea of the UK leaving the EU is “stupid”.
But UKIP is much more than a one man publicity machine. It could win 30% of the vote in this May’s European election – perhaps making it (at least temporarily) the UK’s second largest party. The rise of UKIP has surprised the political establishment, but it should not have done. It has been consistently underestimated.
The party is not simply Eurosceptic, its support goes beyond this and its rise is the result of the alienation of a large part of the electorate – in particular, white, working class male voters who are anti-immigration and feel their views are unrepresented by the main political parties. UKIP supporters are intensely dissatisfied with the established political class.
Around 30% of British voters are Eurosceptic and opposed to immigration, or else are Eurosceptic and politically dissatisfied. Some 20% of the electorate hold all three ‘UKIP-friendly’ beliefs. This suggests about 30% of voters are potentially receptive to UKIP. If this translates into votes it would generate twice the level of electoral support for UKIP as the party gained in the 2013 local government elections, its best performance to date.
UKIP’s potential support has grown since the onset of the financial crisis, with many voters unhappy with how all three main parties have responded to the crisis. The share of voters who hold UKIP-friendly beliefs has expanded, as has the number of voters who are strongly dissatisfied with the main parties’ approach to immigration.
There is a widespread misunderstanding of UKIP’s appeal to the electorate. It is not middle-class, financially secure Tories from the shires – people who care only about Europe and securing an EU referendum – to whom UKIP mostly appeals. UKIP’s core voters share an extremely clear profile. This is what could be called the ‘Left Behind’ group.
These voters are typically older, poorly educated, working class men. While the main political parties compete for support from the professional, middle class majority, this more traditional group of people feel the main parties do not represent them or their values. The ‘Left Behind’ group are nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration in their outlook.
For these voters, the UK has become a country they do not recognise as the one in which they grew up – and they do not want to be part of it. They feel they have no voice in modern politics.
Since 2010, UKIP’s rise in the polls has come by deepening not widening its support amongst this ‘Left Behind’ group. UKIP has ‘doubled down’ on its core, working class vote, rather than spreading its appeal more widely across society. This makes it much more likely that those who support the party will now vote for it.
UKIP has been helped by the unpopularity of David Cameron among those who share UKIP’s outlook. Ed Miliband is also disliked. Nigel Farage is gaining from voter dissatisfaction across the entire political class.
For our book, we analysed the views of more than 100,000 voters and almost 6,000 UKIP supporters, as well as interviewing Nigel Farage, former UKIP MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk and party founder Professor Alan Sked. This helped to make clear the challenges the party faces today.
UKIP is unattractive to university graduates, young voters and ethnic minorities. The party must deal with an electoral system that is stacked against smaller and newer parties.
While UKIP is currently attracting support from one voter in ten, the party’s potential far exceeds its current support in the polls by a margin of three to one. This revolt has been a long time coming, but may have a long way to run.
UKIP’s future success could depend on the answer to one simple question. Can UKIP expand its support, either by holding on to the Conservative defectors who add to their support at European elections, or by winning over new voters from outside their core support among the “left behind”?
If they do, all three main parties could be in serious trouble.