Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool
“Courtesy of UKIP’s stunning vote share, England joined the four party political club at last Thursday’s local elections. Scotland and Wales have been paid-up members for decades, but now we have an essentially English nationalist party to shake up our own politics.
Those expecting UKIP to disappear rapidly may be surprised.
The party may appear to have risen without trace, but has been around since 1993 and has performed well at the last three European elections. And what’s next up? Another round of European contests next year.
UKIP may even top that poll, improving on its second place last time, as the electorate indulges in its quinquennial Euro-sceptic fix.
Beyond 2014? As we approach the General Election, there are two scenarios.
The first is that UKIP remains a serious(ish) force, splitting the vote of the Right to deprive David Cameron of an overall majority, or present Ed Miliband with a Labour victory by default. Ed on the steps of 10 Downing Street thanking Nigel for his role in Labour’s triumph? There’s a thought.
This vista contains all sorts of problem of redress for David Cameron.
The obvious option to negate UKIP is for the Conservative Party to tack further to the Right in a desperate bid to bring back the flirting UKIP voters into the family bosom. Yet the ace has already been played – a referendum on EU membership by 2017 – and that didn’t do much to undermine UKIP last week.
David Cameron cannot offer much else.
Immigration control within the EU isn’t in his gift and other placating changes would leave him looking foolish. Saying “Forget my opposition to grammar schools – I like them now”, or “I’ve changed my mind and don’t support gay marriage after all” would have credibility issues. He can always ask his Deputy PM what happens when you engage in a volte-face.
Whilst the parallels are inexact, Cameron should also heed the warning from the USA when the Republicans went Rightwards to placate the Tea Party. If Nigel Farage’s real aim is to re-orientate the Right he may be disappointed. Disorientation is more likely.
UKIP is quickly relegated back to fringe player and we wonder in 2015 what all the fuss was about. Ironically, the party could fall victim to a Great British Tradition – our First Past the Post electoral system – as electors dismiss the party’s chances of winning a single parliamentary seat. As conservative-minded, older electors (i.e. those who bother to vote) remember they are choosing a government, they vote Conservative to keep Labour out.
They also vote Conservative as they know they will get an EU referendum – so why vote UKIP? They don’t vote UKIP because they are choosing a Prime Minister and males (the bulk of UKIP supporters) realise they are not electing their favourite pub landlord.
Result? UKIP barely improves on the 3% 2010 General Election vote shate –still hurting the Conservatives slightly, but not sufficiently to justify Cameron veering sharply rightwards.
Doing best where it matters least
Is there any evidence from last week for Scenario Two specific to UKIP, rather than based upon comfortable assumptions that new(ish) parties soon crash and burn?
Close inspection of key Conservative versus Labour contests in northern England saw a greater reluctance to switch to UKIP, who polled at ‘only’ 14% in, for example, Lancashire.
UKIP did best where it mattered least, Conservatives defecting in areas where their party held huge majorities (albeit wiping them out in some cases). Older tribal loyalties will re-emerge in a tight election – ‘Stop Labour’ or ‘Stop the Conservatives’ – and UKIP may struggle.
The demography of UKIP support – too thinly spread socially and territorially – means it cannot hope for clusters of regional seats.
Scenario Two is thus the more likely, but in an era of disaffection with the main parties, negative ratings for mainstream political leaders and economic uncertainty, Scenario One – the so-called ‘loons’ and ‘fruitcakes’ surviving as a significant spoiler party, splitting the Right – cannot be ruled out.”
Follow Jon on twitter @JonTonge