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Is UKIP's star fading?

As UKIP seeks to instil discipline amongst its cadres, it finds itself walking a thin line between maintaining the populist rhetoric that harnessed its appeal to the “left-behind” and building a more polished, mainstream image.

Max Kiefel
18 March 2015
UKIP common sense tour

The "people's revolution" may be slowing down. Flicr/RPM. Some rights reserved.What a difference a year makes. A year ago, in the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections Nigel Farage was proclaiming UKIP to be a “people’s revolution.” At the party’s Spring Conference on February 27 and 28 in Margate, Farage and his team were more subdued. Rather than launching new policy, they used the conference to emphasise discipline. Patrick O’Flynn, UKIP’s economic spokesperson, asked UKIP’s “people’s army” to be “understated rather than hyperbolic.” Without any new policy announcements, analysis of the Margate conference has focused on the party’s “Dad’s Army” delegates. Indeed, with a steady 4 point drop in polls since October, questions abound as to whether the people’s revolution has fallen asleep at the barricades. 

UKIP’s narrative has been stated many times before. The major parties, all increasingly similar in their approach to professional politics, do not understand what it is like for “real Britons.” They don’t understand the squeeze immigration places on the community; they want to stay in the EU for their own benefit, not for the people’s. This has created a class of left-behind voters to whom UKIP’s “real talk” appeals.  This is, primarily, a group of working class voters, smashed by Thatcher’s neo-liberalism and abandoned by Blair’s New Labour. The line goes that these voters do not recognise the Britain they live in, and UKIP articulates this feeling. This is how populism works. According to Cas Mudde, a populist party aims to distinguish a pure people from the corrupt elite, while framing its policies around the “volunte generale” (general will) of the people. In this way, UKIP’s “common sense” approach to immigration and the EU was specifically designed to connect with the left-behind. 

An idealised Britain

UKIP’s focus on immigration has gradually developed, in line with its articulation of a lost British identity that carries distinct collective rights. It was UKIP’s 2005 General Election manifesto that first voiced its support for a “Britishness test.” The manifesto espoused a deep despair at the effect of EU immigrants on British culture. This was matched by concern at the decline of immigrants from Commonwealth countries. And from 2010, UKIP started to formally link this impact on British culture and identity with the degradation of social services. UKIP’s 2010 General Election manifesto describes the effect that increased immigration has on schools, the NHS, overdevelopment, youth unemployment and stagnant wages. It even suggests the environment can be improved by halting immigration, as this will ease demand for construction.

By 2014, this message was even more explicit. The 2014 European Parliamentary election manifesto notes “mass immigration has coincided with soaring youth unemployment and stagnant wages that have not kept pace with the cost of living.” UKIP’s strategy here is clear. It designs an image of an idealised, nostalgic Britain and it points fingers at those who don’t fit in.

This is equally apparent in the way UKIP framed its approach to the European Union. While this has always been a pertinent issue for the party, early manifestos from the 1997 and 2001 General Elections present the EU as an institution to curtail British liberalism. However from 2010 onwards, the EU is increasingly perceived to be an undemocratic super-state. The 2010 manifesto links the EU’s Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts to the NHS’ declining quality. It links similar EU bureaucratic directives to problems with the UK’s education system and transport infrastructure. By the 2014 European Parliamentary Elections, the party’s manifesto goes further; on several issues describing the EU as “tyrannical” and “dictatorial.” These are not words that you find in the Labour or Conservative manifestos. 

Waning popularity

A successful social movement will mobilise its supporters by framing its rhetoric and ideas around an “us” and a “them.” This forms a mentality that its members belong to some sort of community, while also delineating the boundaries between the community and outsiders. In this way, UKIP’s populist strategy has articulated its supporters’ fears. For example, UKIP expressed concern for the decline in immigrants from Commonwealth countries. Framed by the broader support for the collective rights that British identity entails, it is unlikely that it is Indian, Nigerian or Jamaican Commonwealth immigrants to whom UKIP relates, but instead Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians.

In reality, UKIP’s growth has come through articulating and even heightening the concerns of its members, as opposed to assuaging them. But this has come at a cost. After UKIP’s election triumph at the European Parliamentary elections last year, the party’s popularity has waned. Recent YouGov polling shows that more than 50% of voters believe UKIP will no longer be relevant by 2025, up more than 15 points since October 2014. With a concomitant drop in the polls from 19% in October to 15% in the above poll, plenty of fingers have been pointed.

The tilt towards the mainstream

Certainly Farage’s focus on securing South Thanet has had an effect. With a strong chance of victory, Farage has needed to at least give the impression he can represent the community with due diligence. However, within the national party there is a deeper internal shift occurring. Behind the calls for “discipline” at Margate last weekend was an eye to the party’s future development. If there is to be an in-out EU referendum in the coming years, UKIP’s survival rests on its capacity to play a prime role in the out campaign. If it is to get there, it will have to calm the very rhetoric that fuelled its past success. This means bending towards the mainstream.

This is a double-edged sword. The party’s success has been bolstered by two defecting Conservative MPs and significant voter trust on immigration issues. But whether attempted professionalism can garner the energy that propelled UKIP’s earlier campaigns – gaffes or not – is another question. As the party seeks to move away from hyperbole and instil discipline amongst its cadres, it finds itself walking a thin line between maintaining the populist rhetoric that harnessed its appeal to the “left-behind” and building a more polished image that gains its entry into the mainstream.

Whether these two voter groups are compatible is another factor. UKIP’s new tilt towards the mainstream rests on the hope it can bring along its base while peeling off further layers of the electorate who have grown tired of the sameness and blandness that Cameron and Miliband offer. But UKIP faces competitors. As the failed austerity measures imposed by the Government become more apparent, alternatives from the left such as the Green Party can continue to grow in popularity. 

The 7th of May is an important date in the political calendar and if UKIP can gain a handful of seats it will be significant for the party. However it is doubtful the party will maintain substantial attention with less than 10 MPs attempting to present a polished, professional image.

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