Monday, 26 May 2014

How did UKIP win the 2014 EU elections?

I have spent the past few weeks wishing I was 18, and able to vote in the European Elections that took place on May 22. When the results (apart from Scotland's) were announced yesterday and UKIP won the most seats and highest percentage of votes, quite rightly, most of the electorate and political class were horrified. Today I thought I would blog about how exactly an openly racist, homophobic and sexist protest party formed in the 1990s by some disillusioned far right Tories became such a political force; today Farage announced that UKIP is now the 'third party' in British politics - although he will have to prove this in the 2015 General Elections.

How exactly did UKIP go from the fringes to a force in British politics? The UK Independence Party has, as its name implies, one key policy - to leave the European Union. As a single issue party, UKIP is unlikely to win a majority of or even more than a handful Westminster seats in 2015. However its wider policies - grammar schools, curbing immigration and opposing gay marriage - seem to have struck a chord with disenchanted voters from the three main UK political parties. But is UKIP simple the party of choice for  the anti-government and anti-politics vote?

After a sweeping win in the 2014 EU Elections Farage has declared that UKIP is not a protest party, and is here to stay. Their methods remain similar to how the Liberal Democrats launched themselves on to the political stage in the 1980s and 1990s; by building a network of local councillors as a springboard to success on the national stage. UKIP councillors have also said that years of groundwork in local areas has helped them build up a support based. The party's campaigning effort has become far more professional and well-funded in the past two years as a result.

From the 2009 European election where they gained 16.5% of the vote, to last weeks election where they won 28% of the vote, should we be afraid of the 'rise of UKIP'? The party has yet to make a breakthrough into Westminster politics - it does not have a single MP - but it came agonisingly close in the Eastleigh by-election last month, where it came within 2,000 votes of victory. And next week the by-election in Newark could see UKIP win their first Westminster seat.

The party was founded on 3 September 1993 at the London School of Economics by members of the Anti-Federalist League, which had been founded by Dr Alan Sked in November 1991 with the aim of running candidates opposed to the Maastricht Treaty in the 1992 general election. UKIP's early days were overshadowed by the much higher profile and well-financed Referendum Party, led by Sir James Goldsmith, which was wound up soon after the 1997 election. The new party's initial successes were all in the proportional representation elections for the European Parliament - winning its first three seats in 1999 with 7% of the vote. It built on that in 2004, winning 12 seats and pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place. The 2009 poll saw its total grow to 13 seats, pushing Labour into third place with 16% of the vote.

General elections, however, with their first-past-the-post voting systems, have been a very different story and the party has failed to make the breakthrough it has been hoping for. In 2001 it saved its deposit (that is, got at least 5% of votes) in just one seat. In 2005 it saved its deposit in 38 seats but lost its deposits in 451 others - costing about £225,500. Even its then leader, former Tory MP Roger Knapman, could only poll 7% of the votes in Totnes, Devon. In 2010 it was led into the general election by Lord Pearson of Rannoch but again lost out, with just 3% of the vote across the UK, although there were signs of progress as it saved its deposit in 100 seats.

The party had hoped to make headlines after Nigel Farage stood down as leader so he could take on Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham, a seat which, by convention, other major parties do not fight at the 2010 election - he did make the headlines but it turned out they were about a plane crash that almost cost Farage his life, rather than election success. Farage recovered from his injuries and returned to head the party later in the year, in the latest instalment of the colourful story of UKIP's leadership.

Original leader and UKIP founder Alan Sked quit before the 1999 European elections, after arguing the party should refuse seats in the "gravy train" of the Strasbourg Parliament. 

Asked what he would do if the British people voted to remain in the EU, Mr Farage joked that he would have to get a "proper job". But the party's success in local elections suggests it might have a future even without the European issue, as a libertarian, right wing alternative to a centrist Conservative Party.

UKIP appears to have struck a chord with many voters on the issue of immigration, campaigning against the relaxation of working restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians. It has rejected claims by cabinet minister Ken Clarke and others that it is simply "against" foreigners, arguing that it is in favour of a sensible "managed" migration policy, something Mr Farage argues is not possible while Britain remains in the EU.

Farage admitted the party had not had time to properly vet all of its new recruits and he was forced to suspend a handful of them following newspaper reports of alleged racist comments. It has been a key part of his strategy to distance the party from the far right - its constitution bans former BNP members from joining. Farage claims to have no ambition for high office - and with the party still lacking representation at Westminster that is not going to happen soon - but it has, against all the odds, established itself as a genuine force. UKIP membership figures have risen from just over 15,000 in 2010 to nearly 40,000 in 2015.

So, it remains to be seen whether UK really will become the 'third party' in British politics - pushing the Liberal Democrats, who suffered a tremendous loss in the EU elections into fourth place. I certainly hope the disenfranchised voters who voted UKIP in this months elections decide to vote for one of the main parties in 2015 who can actually achieve a reform of our current European relations. On top of that, I would condemn voting for a party with councillors who are openly sexist, racist and homophobic. But can UKIP can clean up its act for the 2015 General Election? Only time will tell.