UKIP's NIgel Farrage. Flickr/Astral Media. Some rights reserved.
The inclination to dismiss UKIP as a party of old white men and of the past on the basis of limited research and gut feeling is tempting, but it misses elements in the party’s rise: it ignores the ageing and increasingly male demographics of all the other main parties' memberships/support bases and glosses over data showing UKIP's recent rise among the youngest voters. The party's acceptability to many who formerly voted Labour has fuelled the recent second places in Westminster by-elections where Tories have been unelectable for well over a generation. Continued support at current levels would lead to further rapid changes in UKIP, as occurred with the SNP between 1966 and 1976, and Niki Seth-Smith is correct in her conclusion that the left also needs to understand and address all the issues which appear to have led to the rise of UKIP, and the sense of English identity.
Claiming this ground, though, will be impossible if it mirrors the clichéd and weary response that has marked the Tories' disdainful and patronising approach to UKIP supporters and their concerns, insulting them and using tired, meaningless soundbites designed to sound as if action is on the way, masking an intention to do nothing. Insulting a few hundred thousand UKIP voters a decade ago might have been careless but to do the same with a few million today is near suicidal. Failure to really engage with the issues which lie behind UKIP’s rise will lead to further major advances for the party.
It is important to understand that the Yougov research about UKIP supporter profiles that Michael Skey refers to is a tiny snapshot during a period of hype in the run up to publicised elections where Tory voters en masse were openly planning to jump ship: it is challenged to some extent by Yougov's own polling elsewhere in subsequent weeks - the broadbrush summary was done in February when, for example, every Yougov poll showed UKIP behind the LibDems, while almost every Yougov poll done since the 28th February Eastleigh by-election shows the party ahead of the LibDems. UKIP, like the SNP in its first years of success after decades of just being there, is a work in fast progress and its voters/support base are in a process of constant change.
Polling by Yougov itself since the February date (3-4 July 2013, 1-2 July 2013, 20-21 June 2013, 12-13 June 2013 (equal to over 65s)) shows that the youngest age group (18-24) is now often the second largest supporter of UKIP after the (indeed inevitable) 65+ group. In the 12-13 June polling, the youngest voters actually equal the oldest voters in support. If this really were a movement completely dominated by the concerns of the over 60s, it seems extraordinary that the very young should be gravitating in quite such numbers to the party or not simply rejecting/ignoring it. The figures from Yougov also bear out the fears of Labour that UKIP is taking votes from across the spectrum.
Niki Seth-Smith says that "party followers...are twice as likely to be over 60 than the general population". But this, of course, is what researchers and experts are saying about Labour, Tory and LibDem memberships and activism/support as well: the paper by Bennie and Russell (2012) makes this quite clear, referring to Scarrow and Gezgor's conclusions (page 3). Results predicting outcomes beyond intended voting for the next general election are not helped by the failure of most polling organizations to ‘prompt’ for UKIP (ie they do not mention the party to respondents, but mention the other main three). It is impossible as yet to tell what is the right approach in predicting the result at a general election, but the figures are starkly different when you do prompt and they drag in a whole new demographic - younger voters. Any casual look at ukpollingreport.co.uk (summarizing all polling) shows the wild variations – a poll last week taken on the same day showed 10% (unprompted, Yougov) and 22% (prompted, Survation). Variations like this allow selectivity to create and reinforce any impression one wants.
Trying to attract the young to any political party as opposed to pressure groups is difficult and has been analysed in depth, but in comparison with the Tories, for example, who appear to have just given up, casually accepting the constant decline, UKIP appears to be making a determined if chaotic effort. The large numbers involved in the recent row over the support by senior officers in Young Independence for gay marriage and the fallout from it gives indication of truth in the UKIP claims that the numbers of young members are increasing, that they have an impact on the party and that there is internal debate.
Above all, the party has not been rejected at any time by the young as some sort of a pariah (like, say, the BNP would be).
This is important because another strain of the argument about UKIP ('the BNP in blazers' label) will not now work, however much the daft pre-politics antics and statements of some hastily drafted new UKIP candidates are exposed by Conservative Central Office. One of the problems with this old argument is that practically everyone now knows a UKIP member or activist and the fumbled, feeble and tortuous attempts to make UKIP appear like the BNP tend to sound cynical, self-serving and simply crying wolf. Countering this is the stale and featureless candidates of the main parties, almost every one of whom have joined young, been hot-housed to avoid doing or saying anything that might be used against them (therefore doing very little outside of sanctioned party activities) and parachuted in. They mouth the careful and cautious, centrally-planned platitudes of Party HQ, in response to their voters' fears and anger; they never actually seem to say anything. They are the "compliant" half of the "Radical or compliant: young party members in Britain?" title of the Bennie and Russell paper. Were the main parties deemed worthy of respect by voters, the indiscretions of UKIP candidates would probably go against the party big time. But UKIP's sole problem with this appears now to be one of management. And although Nigel Farage and I have not spoken for many years, I would suggest that his handling of this has been effective. He appears to have ensured candidates infringing rules about equality and diversity are dealt with quickly according to the party rules.
An important additional aspect is that UKIP’s determination to ensure that no links could be made to the BNP by mischief makers has paid off. At a time when Labour were actively accepting and courting BNP councillors in Burnley for political gain, UKIP barred any ex-BNP member from membership for all time. To some degree, therefore, unless one suggests that Labour has a pass and can accept what it describes daily as "racists" into its fold willingly in return for a cynical party-scripted recant, it lost the moral high ground in any claim against a party which avowedly will not accept such people. The main point, however, is that the argument will not now work as a way of reducing support for UKIP.
Niki Seth-Smith refers to the strengthening of English identity and, she is quite right, this must not be linked to racism or xenophobia. But one of the dangers with politicians trying to surf the new mood of Englishness is that they are profoundly unsympathetic and out of touch with it, and their appreciation is as contrived as Gordon Brown's supposed love for the Arctic Monkeys or the Tory embrace of the welfare state in 1945. It is patently lacking in conviction and insincere. The openDemocracy title of the piece about the Olympics speech sums it up - 'Labour should talk about England (but no action please): Ed Miliband on the Union'. To some degree, all the main parties have also spent 50 years branding as racist anyone who talks about ‘England’ or ‘Englishness’, with all the attendant stupidities of banning the flag of St George (“because of racism fears”) and creating the impression that the only people who talk about ‘England’ are football hooligans.
The talking therefore began quite a long time ago and the main parties have explaining to do and some recanting of their own if they are to appear sincere. The perception now will be that the old parties cannot just come along, claim the issue, and think they can neuter it with bland words, all the while banning the English flag as racist. Picture the scene: Nigel Farage has made a barnstorming speech about England and fairness, punctuated by humour and awkward points about flag bans and quotes from tortuous justifications made by clueless councillors, all received by cheers and much waving of flags. Ed Miliband “grabs the microphone from Farage” as suggested by Niki Seth-Smith and says: "we must all work together and maybe we need a dialogue and then ‘move on’". Oh dear. It will not go away and the Farage statement about an English Parliament is closer to the views of the electorate than the cautious talking shop views of the other parties, even if it is controversial in a party called UKIP. It may be that this is an occasion when parties might have to consider adopting urgent stances on the position of England to outflank a party offering what English voters think is right or fair. But the fear, one suspects, is that this appears to legitimise UKIP yet further (“they were right”) and so the paralysis will continue.
Weighing up UKIP generally, it is worth those on the left in particular remembering something else about UKIP members (and voters). Although they have by and large stayed away at senior level from the populist attacks on bankers etc, the members themselves in polling do not perceive themselves as right wing: as Skey says in reference to trying to place UKIP on a spectrum, there is not the corporate muscle behind UKIP that lies behind the Tea Party in the USA. And part of the restraint on these certain issues is through gritted teeth. Speak to some senior UKIP members about the articles on openDemocracy referring to the US-EU trading agreement and the dangers it represents to the NHS, and there is absolutely no difference between their views and that of the contributors here - these cannot be described as right wing. Ask the membership themselves at a UKIP conference to sign a petition about this and you would probably obtain a majority of the attendees' support. In my time on the party NEC, had Labour followed the Peter Shore, Gwyneth Dunwoody and Tony Benn line on the EU, and the Gisela Stuart thinking about the EU Constitution, then a third of UKIP's NEC would have considered joining the Labour Party when UKIP was in one of its periods of turmoil. The days of the party being full of “Tories in Mourning” are over.
It is also no secret that many in UKIP, and even more in the eurosceptic movement generally, have the view that it would be easier to deal with a Labour government after 2015, one with a commitment to a referendum, and (frankly) that a referendum held by an unpopular mid-term Labour government could unite the eurosceptics, who could then pull off a vote demanding an EU exit. Farage has also made clear he would find it easier to deal with Miliband than Cameron after the 2015 election, a view echoed even by former Tories in the party and received with little internal opposition.
"Our best option for leaving the EU is for Labour to promise a referendum and for us to vote the party into office", says Richard North, the author of the well respected eureferendum.com site. Well, quite.