In the local elections which took place across the UK last week, the UK Independence Party, (UKIP) gained 139 council seats, bringing them to a total of 147 out of the 1,343 seats that were contested. The party achieved an average of 25% vote share across the 75% of seats where they fielded candidates, dramatically exceeding expectations. Despite many respected voices predicting a swing to the political right in these elections, UKIP gained over three times more seats than was forecast by bodies such as the Political Studies Association.
Just twenty years old, UKIP was founded in 1993 in opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the creation of the European Union and the Euro. Their primary objective was, and remains, the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but their website describes the EU as ‘only the biggest symptom of the real problem – the theft of our democracy by a power, remote political “elite” which has forgotten that it’s here to serve the people’.
Their right-wing, libertarian stance allows leader Nigel Farage, an MEP, to position UKIP as the patriotic Brit’s alternative to David Cameron’s Conservative government, which is currently leading Britain in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
It is likely that UKIP’s gains in these council elections will be followed by a strong vote in their favour in next year’s European elections; it may also lead to UKIP winning its first seats in the 2015 General Election. Whether they do or don’t is largely incidental – the real impact of UKIP’s success is what Farage has already described as a ‘sea-change’ in British politics, and in particular on David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Much analysis shows that UKIP support is coming from disaffected Conservative voters, and under the UK’s First-Past-The-Post system, is splitting the right-wing vote, causing real problems for the Conservative Party.
The real impact is to drag the Conservatives to the right on many of UKIP’s core issues - indeed, Cameron’s first response to the local elections was to pledge to ‘show respect for people who have taken the choice to support this party’.
So what are the issues that motivate people to ‘support this party’? Despite UKIP’s grounding and continued focus on Europe (their logo, for instance, is a pound sign, symbolizing Britain’s independence from the Euro), it is clear that the real issue that sets their voters apart is immigration.
Although now six months old, Lord Ashcroft’s Report They’re Thinking What We’re Thinking provides the most comprehensive analysis of what drives UKIP support. His key finding, from extensive qualitative and quantitative research, is in line with this week’s YouGov poll – showing that attitudes towards Europe do not set UKIP supporters or considerers apart from other voters very significantly. Immigration, on the other hand, was a far stronger concern.
Lord Aschcroft’s report makes very clear however, that this isn’t simply a question of policy. He found tone and outlook to be much stronger drivers of UKIP support. The question is not so much what UKIP say about immigration, but how they, particularly Farage, says it. Lord Ashcroft found that agreement with the statement ‘UKIP says things that need to be said but other parties are scared to say’ was a particularly strong driver of likelihood to support UKIP, most strongly so of those who have previously voted Conservative.
This speaks to the enormous lack of trust in mainstream politicians to lead on the issue of immigration, fuelled by stories across the media spectrum about UK Border Agency failures and memories of incidents such as Gordon Brown’s ‘Bigot-gate’ – a clear example of politicians not prepared to say publicly what they really feel.
Alongside this question of political trust, there is also another important lesson to be drawn from UKIP’s success in relation to public attitudes towards immigration.
It is clear that immigration is not an abstract, distant policy issue for voters in the way that, say, foreign aid spending might be seen to be. These are deeply ingrained fears, driven by lived experiences, and linked to wider narratives about the direction in which Britain is seen to be heading.
Lord Ashcroft summarises the way that participants in his qualitative research discussed immigration thus: it is ‘part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.’
This picture indicates the importance of integration to the immigration debate; that fears are generally about the failure of integration rather than the idea of immigration per se. The think-tank British Future has discussed the ‘Integration Consensus’ – with BritainThinks polling on their behalf showing that 83% of the public fully agree that ‘those who join our society who want to learn the language, obey the law and live by the rules must count as fully and equally British’.
These profound fears about failures of integration sit alongside a string of economic concerns around immigration, particularly competition for jobs, impact on wages and pressure on scarce public services, namely housing.
These deeply held concerns around immigration, manifested in UKIP’s 25% share of the public vote, mean that over the next two years in the run up to the 2015 General Election, the political narrative around immigration will only continue to harden. Indeed, the Conservative Party wasted no time in using Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech to lay out plans to limit access to benefits, including to the NHS, for new EU arrivals.
The lack of trust in politicians to lead on the issue of immigration means that even those politicians more immune to the electoral pressures of moving to the right on UKIP’s issues will fail to find any real success.
This leaves the pro-migration lobby with a bigger role to play than ever in influencing public thinking on these issues over the next two years. This inevitably brings with it many questions and challenges.
Firstly, there is the question of how to intervene in this fiercely political debate. With much inaccurate and misleading information being promoted by certain sections of the British media, it can be tempting to fire-fight with correct information and analysis. The issue here is that because immigration is such an emotively-driven, lived experience for so many British voters, hearing ‘correct’ information has little impact on attitudes.
There is also a question of which audiences to target – for organizations experiencing unprecedented pressure on budgets and increasingly unreceptive media outlets, going beyond the ‘low hanging fruit’ of supportive audiences can be a challenging task.
Finally there is the question of messaging and framing of campaigns. If migration advocacy groups are going to approach sceptical audiences, there are real challenges in terms of how to frame arguments. In BritainThinks’ work for British Future, we consistently find that whilst positive case studies can have an impact on sceptical audiences’ views of immigration, those that are most effective are messages which highlight migrant contributions to Britain, or, particularly in the case of asylum seekers and refugees, gratitude to the host community. Such framing can make many uncomfortable, raising questions about whether such representations are values-based or only help to entrench ‘good migrant/bad migrant’ narratives.
All in all, UKIP’s surge in popularity poses more questions than it answers. But it is clear that the narrowing and hardening of the British political debate will leave the pro-migration lobby as the only sector with the inclination and authority to speak positively about migration over the coming months and years. This will require organisations in this sector to engage more closely with the political context and public opinion realities of these issues, however challenging this can be.