UKIPs undoubtedly successful showing in the (mostly) English local elections has left many analysts speculating over whether this is a sustainable political shift to “four party” politics or not?
Of course, its not as simple as that – we already had four party politics in Scotland and Wales, although it could be argued the Tories are so weak in both it’s more like three party politics – just not the same three as in England.
The question I’ve been pondering is what it takes to create a sustainable new party, especially in an era where “party” politics appears to be in decline?
Politically a new party probably needs two key characteristics: a set of values or a mindset that makes it distinctive, and a constituency of supporters who hold that broad set of values already.
UKIP’s “usp” (unique selling point) is not just about Europe. I’d suggest there’s probably five key strands. First, national sovereignty and withdrawal from Europe; second, reduction in immigration; third, roll back equalities legislation and culture; fourth, a small state; and lastly, a liberalised economy. Of course, some of these policies potentially conflict – for example opening up Britain as a completely ‘free trade’ economy may be more difficult outside the EU. And ‘free trade’ in everything except people is hard to sustain.
But, as my colleague at Manchester Rob Ford has identified, UKIP does seem to have found a constituency for these views – the somewhat older blue-collar and self-employed, with a fundamentally nationalistic and socially conservative mindset. In the past these people have tended to be associated with both the Tories and ‘old Labour’, presenting a problem for both main parties, although slightly more so for the Tories.
Organisationally, a party probably needs three things: a ‘core group’; money; and a network of activists. UKIP currently doesn’t appear to have any of these, yet.
The successes in the local elections could certainly lay the basis for a much better network of activists and local bases for UKIP. The fact they managed at all to field so many candidates also speaks to a growing activist base.
On the funding front there is certainly the opportunity to raise substantial funds, especially from the finance sector where fear of EU regulation of the City is escalating.
But it is in the creation of a substantial “core group” that UKIP seems weakest. The fact they had to bring back Nigel Farage as leader after he’d resigned, and the almost complete absence of other credible performers does not look good. Recent revelations that UKIP were considering buying policies “off the shelf” from righting think-tanks says a lot about their lack of core capacity.
None of this may matter depending what UKIP’s real strategy is. In his interview on the Today programme after the local elections, Nigel Farage was asked if he foresaw a UKIP “reverse take-over” of the Tories, the way some suggest the SDP effectively took over New Labour, albeit indirectly. Farage pointedly didn’t say no. It could well be their strategy not to really become a “fourth” party, but to act as a ginger-group to create change in the Conservative Party. Alternatively, they may be hoping to break off a substantial block of Tory MPs, Councillors and local activists to cement their base and core group and become a viable right-wing populist party.
If, as many analysts are suggesting, we are heading into a period of multi-party coalition politics, such a force could have a disproportionate effect on a coalitions governments policies, as has happened elsewhere in Europe.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on party organisation, or on the ecology of party politics for that matter, but there are some fascinating questions starting to emerge alongside UKIPs recent successes.