On the 10th October 2014, UKIP achieved a seat in the UK House of Commons. This feat has been the dream, indeed craving, of the party since its earliest years – one which had been denied them, until yesterday. UKIP’s victory in the European elections and its success in entering parliament have far reaching consequences for British politics.
Whilst avoiding at all cost the (often fatal) error of complacency, it is also important to keep such occurrences in perspective. The rise of the anti-EU party does not mean that Britain’s future in the European Union is thrown into (further) doubt. The strong performance of Lord Jonathan Hill, the UK’s designated candidate for the EU’s highest level of officials, the College of European Commissioners, would be one example of how the strengths of the UK-EU relationship are visible.
Lord Hill gave a strong and robust performance at his hearing with Euro-MPs, outlining himself as a pro-European Conservative, willing to work for the common European good in his portfolio (finance). Hill’s successes highlight the ability of the Conservative Party – bitterly divided on the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU – to play a constructive role in European politics. Hill’s nomination for the financial portfolio places him at the forefront of regulation concerning the City of London, a clear message from Brussels, that London’s voice is heeded.
Returning to the electoral battle field, UKIP’s victory in Clacton (South East England) does not herald the arrival of a new potential party of government. The bi-election took place following the defection of Douglas Carswell from the Conservative Party to UKIP, triggering the poll in his constituency. Carswell himself was popular among local voters, having strong links to the area. His personal incumbency bonus was enhanced by the fact that by-elections (much like European elections) are seen as a protest vote. It presented an opportunity to kick an unpopular government and retain a popular MP – this does not represent a standard template for the electoral battles UKIP faces in the future.
There is much media focus on another by-election; the Heywood and Middleton by-election which took place on the same day and allows for further analysis of how UKIP will affect the political balance in the UK. Located in Greater Manchester (Northern England), Heywood and Middleton represents a case-study for UKIP’s performance in Labour heartlands (such as industrial areas in the North of England). On the face of it, UKIP gave Labour a run for their money – with Labour only retaining the seat by 600 votes. Once again, it must not be forgotten that Heywood and Middleton was a by-election (resulting from the death of incumbent Labour MP Jim Dobbin), yielding a disproportionately strong protest vote. Additionally, with a turnout of only 36%, the impact of UKIP’s vote is felt much more keenly. In the context of such a low turnout, Labour’s share of the vote actually increased.
Clacton witnessed the collapse of the Conservative vote at the hands of a popular defector candidate, in a party with strong socially conservative policies (a party which has on many cases faced scandals relating to racism and sexism). In Heywood and Middleton, UKIP demonstrated its ability to make a large impact in protest-orientated by-elections with a low voter turnout. Finally, UKIP will continue to draw upon the support of voters who do not wish to support either of the two main parties, a demographic which became available when the centrist Liberal Democrats, the traditional protest party of recent decades, entered into central government with the Conservatives.
Whether through their own direct electoral success or by exacerbating the anti-European radicalisation of certain sections of the Conservative Party, UKIP do pose a threat to British membership of the EU. UKIP also represents a manifestation of nasty and hateful politics, at a time when many voters feel abandoned by mainstream political parties – something all too familiar across the EU. The facts above help to understand the exact context of UKIP’s recent political victories, but no one can be in any doubt that this must serve as a (final) wake-up call to pro-Europeans and progressives throughout the country.
The rise of UKIP is not inevitable, but neither will it vanish overnight.