Explaining the Rise of the UK Independence Party

Teaser Image Caption

Image removed.Download Article

At the 2014 European Parliament elections the UK Independence Party (UKIP) become the first new party in British politics since the 1920s to top the poll in a nationwide election. It was also the first occasion since 1906 when a party other than Labour or the Conservatives won the highest share of the national vote. So where did UKIP come from, who is supporting it, and what does its rise reveal about British and also European politics?

UKIP is the most significant new party in British politics for a generation. Particularly since 2010 the party has been attracting rapidly rising public support after broadening its Eurosceptic message to include strong opposition to immigration and populist attacks against Britain’s established political class. UKIP is currently winning more than one in ten voters at domestic Westminster voting intention polls, while at the recent European Parliament elections the party won over more than one in four. With 4.3 million votes at these elections UKIP established itself as a major political force. Moreover, these elections also saw Nigel Farage’s party attract extremely high levels of support in some areas that are mainly along the Eastern Coast of England. In nine local authorities, for example, UKIP polled over 45% of the vote, pointing to some likely strong results at the 2015 British general election.

A long time coming: why UKIP is no ‘flash-in-the-pan’

According to conventional wisdom, UKIP is simply the latest reflection of enduring divisions among Conservatives over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Since its formation in 1993, UKIP has been consistently portrayed as merely a ‘second home’ for elderly, middle-class and single-issue Conservatives who live in the suburbs, are only concerned about withdrawing Britain from the EU and want to return to the days when Margaret Thatcher took a hard-line with Brussels. Since 2010, many argue that these dissatisfied Conservatives have been further pushed into the arms of Nigel Farage by David Cameron, a Conservative leader who they see as not sharing their strong desire to withdraw Britain from the EU and their harder social conservatism. Seen from this perspective, UKIP is often treated as a flash party that is similar to the Poujadist movement in 1950s France; a short-term outlet for political protestors who will inevitably re-join the political mainstream.

This wisdom, however, only makes sense if you assume that UKIP has not changed since its early beginnings as an anti-EU pressure group that grew out of Eurosceptic think tanks like the Bruges Group. These lazy assumptions have also been adopted by left-wing thinkers, some of whom have applauded the rise of UKIP as a phenomenon that will ‘divide the right’ and ease the Labour Party’s return to power in 2015. But as we show in our new book, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, this conventional wisdom is fundamentally flawed.

The rise and appeal of UKIP is far more complex than what much of Britain’s commentariat would us believe. Like other radical right parties in Europe, the underlying forces that are driving UKIP can be traced back over several decades and are rooted in much deeper social and value changes that are dividing the electorate into quite different groups. UKIP, in short, is mobilising back into politics longstanding social and economic divisions in Britain that initially opened in the 1970s and have since widened further following the post-2008 great recession.

This story of social change begins with the numerical decline of several groups who together we describe as the left behind; older, less well educated, low skilled and white working-class voters. The left behind were once central to Britain’s political and social debate, as they were in many other EU states. The trade unions to which they belonged wielded immense political power, and no party could secure an election victory without winning significant support from these voters.

Between the 1960s and early 2000s, however, this picture radically changed. The blue-collar voters who once dominated the electorate came to constitute a small and rapidly declining minority. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of university education and professional white-collar employment placed a new class of more financially secure middle-class graduates and professionals at the centre of our media and politics. In only fifty years Britain was radically transformed from a society where low skilled, low educated and blue-collar voters decided the outcome of elections to where it is today; where left behind voters are only spectators in the political battle for professional middle-class votes. Consider one statistic from our book; when Harold Wilson and the Labour Party won the 1964 British general election, almost five in ten Britons worked in blue-collar jobs and four in ten belonged to a trade union. But by 1997, when Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour assumed power, the proportion of voters in blue-collar jobs had slumped almost twenty points to one in three, while the proportion of trade union members had crashed to barely one in five.

This deep social change is absolutely essential to making sense of UKIP because while it has fundamentally transformed the national economy it has also been joined by a dramatic change in the values that dominate society. In sharp contrast to the professional middle-class majority, that albeit sceptical is broadly at ease with immigration, the EU and social liberalism, the employment and social mobility prospects facing the left behind have been receding for decades. Now, these voters also find that their values and priorities are being pushed to the margins of debate. The left behind, who since 2010 have been turning to UKIP in rapidly growing numbers, share a very distinctive outlook on issues that are central to the radical right; toward the European Union, national identity, immigration and the established political class. They are consistently the most receptive to demands to pull Britain out of the EU, to subscribe to a more restrictive conception of national identity that holds up ancestry, to feel intensely anxious over immigration, and excluded by a political class in Westminster and Brussels that they view as corrupt, out-of-touch and uncaring. On all of these issues it is the left behind who hold a markedly different outlook from the professional middle-class majority.

While these divisions opened a long time ago, they have widened further since the onset of the post-2008 great recession. In fact, across all the years for which we have survey data the working classes in Britain have never felt so alienated as they do today; some 40% agree strongly that they have no say in government, while only 16% of middle-class respondents feel the same way. This disaffection is a product of party politics as well as social change. In the chase for electoral majorities Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour and Cameron’s ‘compassionate’ Conservatives converged on the centre ground and had little incentive to engage with the left behind on issues that in earlier years did not win elections, namely Europe and immigration. Moreover, many of these left behind voters are found in ‘safe seats’ that have been controlled by one of the main parties for decades.

In this way, underlying social change had already created a large reservoir of potential radical right voters long before Nigel Farage and UKIP even started to campaign. Only now –through an articulate and effective campaigner- are these underlying conflicts once again being mobilised by UKIP into British politics, much as they have been for over twenty years in other EU Member States.

UKIP’s voters: Who are they really?

These underlying divides help to explain why UKIP’s voters share a very distinctive social profile and far more so than supporters of the main parties. UKIP’s core electorate is comprised of blue-collar, older, white men, who tend to have very few qualifications and feel pessimistic about their futures. Those who argue that UKIP and Farage are ‘catch-all’ populists who are appealing across society are wrong. UKIP’s is the most working class vote in British politics; to find an electorate as working-class you need to go back to when Michael Foot led the Labour Party in the early 1980s.

This will not surprise observers of the radical right on mainland Europe, where parties like the Front National in France and Danish People’s Party have built strong links with the working class by pitching to their concerns over immigration, globalisation, the EU and domestic politics. In some cases these parties won over blue-collar voters by combining anti-immigrant xenophobia with a heavy dose of economic protectionism. UKIP, however, is winning over the same groups in society while not offering a protectionist ethos, although this may change as UKIP completes a policy review. While the radical right in Britain was a late-starter, arriving some twenty years after other European examples, since 2010 UKIP has similarly drawn strength from the same underlying divisions and conflicts.

What is motivating these voters? Our analysis of almost 6,000 UKIP voters reveals how three motives are especially key to explaining support for the party: opposition to immigration; opposition to the EU; and hostility to the established political class. This is the ‘triple motive’ that underpins the UKIP vote. Those who are supporting Nigel Farage are animated by so much more than just disdain of EU officials in Brussels and Strasbourg. Almost three-quarters of them give immigration the highest rating as an important issue. Over 90% of them disapprove of Britain’s EU membership, almost half are very dissatisfied with the state of British democracy, and almost one in three feel very pessimistic about their prospects, hinting at the underlying economic marginalisation that fuels their anger.

UKIP voters are certainly Eurosceptic, but Euroscepticism alone is not enough to convince them to support the party. Rather, their motives are ‘Brussels-Plus’; their intense Euroscepticism is combined with strong hostility toward immigration, or hostility to politicians, or often both. These three motives have created a strongly motivated electorate; so angry and fed up that they are willing to back an untested radical alternative that is regularly ridiculed in the media. UKIP began in 1993 as a single-issue anti-EU rebellion among ex-Conservatives, but has since grown into a potent political force by consolidating Britain’s ‘left behind’ voters who use UKIP as a way of saying ‘no’ three times: no to Brussels; no to politicians in Westminster; and no to immigration and rising ethnic diversity. There is no ‘Farageism’ but nor does there need to be. This simple appeal is enough for voters who, for decades, have felt left behind economically and cut out of Britain’s political conversation over social and cultural issues like immigration and Europe.

Lessons for the Left: Why Labour and the Conservatives should listen

Where are these voters coming from politically? Disillusioned Conservatives have always been a big source of votes and activists for UKIP, and that remains true today. But they are not consistently the main source of support. Before 2010, and during the eras of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, UKIP drew much of their strength from Britons who said they used to vote Labour. And while many of UKIP’s current voters say they backed the Conservatives last time, it is worth bearing in mind what else these voters say: they dislike Cameron intensely; they feel that the Conservatives have failed them on immigration and the financial crisis (the main issues which matter to them); and they feel that politics in Westminster has nothing to offer them. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that these voters would be loyal to the Conservatives today if UKIP did not exist. Rather, they would most likely be looking for another outlet for their discontent –or giving up entirely by staying at home.

In fact, in a less politically fragmented era these left behind voters should be expected to be switching over in large numbers to the main opposition. These voters – who, in a time of austerity and insecurity, are struggling with falling incomes, dismal prospects and cuts to benefits and public services - should be a primary target for Labour. But, instead, many left behind voters are switching their loyalty to an untested radical right insurgent over the traditional defender of redistribution and equality. Rather than turn to Labour, they are opting for a party that appears at ease with neo-liberal economics, the free market, defines itself as libertarian, talks of curbing welfare and sought to abolish inheritance tax at the last general election. The Conservatives may justly worry about their failure to hold on to these voters, but Labour should worry just as much about why they are not winning over the left behind.

There is another, sobering message for Labour when we look at how Farage and UKIP have grown so quickly since 2010. This growth has not come from UKIP forging ties with new groups; their support among young people, women, minorities and middle-class professionals remains weak. Labour’s rise in the polls, in contrast, has come precisely from these groups, who were always and remain hostile to UKIP. But while this is good news for progressives, among UKIP’s core electorate of left behind voters Labour’s advance since their 2009 low ebb has been anaemic. Between 2009 and 2013 Labour’s support among the over-65s, working-class, Britons with no qualifications and men increased by an average of just three percentage points. UKIP’s advance among these groups, in contrast, averages close to ten percentage points. Labour's failure to consolidate support among the left behind is one thing standing in the way of a more commanding poll lead, and the fact that UKIP are doing so well among these groups should be ringing loud alarm bells on the left.

Another reason UKIP’s revolt matters is Britain’s geographically defined electoral system. The left behind tend to concentrate in particular areas, and most of these traditionally return Labour MPs. This is why it is not surprising that, since 2010, UKIP have performed strongly in parliamentary by-elections in Labour seats like Rotherham and South Shields in more economically deprived northern England. It is precisely in these Labour areas where we find the largest numbers of left behind voters who are central to UKIP support. Through local, European and general elections UKIP could establish itself as the second force in many of these areas, positioning themselves as potential challengers to an unpopular Labour government in 2020 –assuming that the party survives that long.

All of this hints at a wider problem facing not just Labour but British politics in general. When we track the proportion of left behind voters who say they identify with the two main parties over the past thirty years, we find a dramatic shift. In the 1980s and 1990s the working class and those with no qualifications were participating in Britain’s two party system; a large majority of them identified with Labour or the Conservatives, although most sided with Labour. But during the 2000s these left behind groups steadily lost faith in Labour. However, instead of attaching themselves to the Conservatives they simply stopped identifying with either of the two main parties. UKIP is a by-product of this shift, and so the party raises other deeper questions. Why do these left behind voters feel so alienated from our politics? What can be done to bring them back into the mainstream fold? And what are the long-term consequences of our established political class failing to re-engage these voters?

Writing about an earlier insurgency against the two main parties in the 1980s, by the Social Democratic Party, the academics Ivor Crewe and Anthony King noted how the SDP’s performance bore a resemblance to a biography of someone who showed early promise but died young. It is too early to know whether UKIP will follow the same path, but in a way it doesn’t matter. Irrespective of UKIP’s fortunes, their rise has opened a window on the left behind in Britain and tells us much about the growing identity crisis facing social democrats across Europe. These parties are now dominated by professional middle-class politicians chasing professional middle class votes, and increasingly find themselves estranged from struggling, left behind voters they were long ago founded to represent.