You either love him or hate him. I happen to love him, if you hadn’t already guessed. Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party offer the vision of a Britain outside of the European Union that doesn’t involve economic protectionism – unlike many of his anti-EU comrades on the continent.
UKIP’s rise in 2014 has been meteoric. It started with victory in May’s European elections, and culminated with two triumphant by-elections in Clacton and Rochester and Strood, as Conservative defectors Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless became the party’s first elected MPs in the House of Commons. They now regularly reach scores of 15% or higher in national opinion polls, and with a general election approaching, UKIP has the potential to secure a significant breakthrough. But will they?
The consensus of the Westminster politicos throughout the year was that the UKIP bubble would burst. Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t. The torrent of abuse that began when the prospect of victory in the European elections first became realistic, has continued without relent, yet it has had no effect. The swathes of purple voters across the land care not what Farage thinks about breastfeeding, nor whether some archived footage shows him wavering on his commitment to the National Health Service. They also see right through the efforts to twist his comments – the contortion of his remarks over female wages in the city springs to mind. From the strengthening poll numbers and the regular failure of media ambushes, we can conclude the now entrenched base of UKIP voters are extremely unlikely to switch their ballot allegiance in May. In fact, an increase in support seems far more likely than a collapse.
UKIP’s biggest barrier to making a major breakthrough in 2015 could be the electoral system. Despite recent success under the first-past-the-post format, the nuances of it don’t lend themselves to an insurgent party. Their support is thickening, but it is spread pretty evenly across the country – except in London, where they perform poorly. UKIP have not created their own heartlands yet. Therefore, they may achieve an array of strong seconds, but returning more than a handful of MPs to the green benches will be much tougher. Farage has already stated that their strategy – much like the Liberal Democrats in the past – will be to select seats they believe they can win, and bombard them with campaigning. A strong day and who knows? Possibly 20 seats and wielding the balance of power? It may seem unlikely now, but did you envisage UKIP winning a national election, and picking up two by-election scalps 12 months ago? Perhaps the first, but I most certainly did not foresee the second. However, a poor day – say anything fewer than five or 10 seats – and their Westminster position will remain one of irrelevance rather than influence.
“If we fail, then the party will pick someone better than me, but we won’t.” – Nigel Farage
Much will of course depend on the result in Thanet South – the Kent constituency where Farage is standing. A Lord Ashcroft poll in July gave him a slight advantage but another in November had him lagging 5% behind Conservative candidate – and former UKIP deputy leader – Craig Mackinlay. For all of the party’s progress, Farage is the undeniable lynch pin of their success. His resignation would seem certain if he doesn’t become an MP – in August he said: “If we fail, then the party will pick someone better than me, but we won’t.” His confidence in that quote undoubtedly stemmed from his knowledge of Carswell’s imminent defection, which came the very next day.
I am expecting a close battle in Thanet, but one which Farage will ultimately win. He has four months to get it right, and now the by-elections are out of the way, UKIP can put all hands on deck there in a way the other parties cannot – Labour and the Conservatives have bigger priorities than trying to prevent Farage’s election, as much as they might like to.
A strong manifesto is also essential. Misconceptions and a lack of clarity on policy have been major issues this year, and the incident which saw Patrick O’Flynn’s proposed “luxury tax” scrapped within 48 hours of his conference speech was an embarrassment. The NHS will be a key battleground, fears the party plan to privatise the health service have been rife, despite them being consistently rubbished. To woo floating voters a manifesto of conviction is paramount. Anything less and the media will waste no time in looking to ridicule.
Abandoning some libertarian ideology, UKIP has searched to exploit the disaffected old Labour vote, where they have gained considerable ground, as October’s Heywood and Middleton by-election showed – UKIP candidate John Bickley came within 600 votes of taking the seat. Pleasing voters from across the political spectrum is fiendishly difficult. UKIP’s tactic to play politics as a battle between Westminster and the people, over the more traditional Left vs Right has proven profitable so far, expect them to ply similar tactics in the coming campaign.
The third party often gets squeezed in a general election as the Lib Dems found out in 2010. Nick Clegg shone in the television debates while David Cameron and Gordon Brown bickered, but his party ended up with less MPs than in 2005.
But UKIP’s threat is much different. Discontent amongst the electorate is far higher now than it has been in my lifetime and whatever you think of Farage and his party, they are offering a clear alternative to the status quo. Those keen on leaving the EU and controlling immigration are unlikely to be swayed by the promises of the mainstream parties they deem to have deceived them once too often. I feel inclined to point out that whilst the two issues are intertwined, immigration is not the sole reason UKIP wish to leave the EU, as the media generally fail to recognise. Mind, it’s hardly surprising organisations such as the BBC don’t recognise them considering the EU’s history of bankrolling them!
Not a clairvoyant, I can’t predict what will happen in May. But what I have seen from this year is the divide between politicians and the public grow even wider. As a result, UKIP have swelled and solidified instead of whimpering away. If Labour and the Conservatives malaise continues in 2015, more of the same could be in order.
First-past-the-post has always been UKIP’s main obstacle – nearly a million votes at the last general election translated into zero seats. The two by-election triumphs have allowed them to proclaim: “If you vote UKIP, you get UKIP.” How they project that message will be key to the level of success they can achieve.
This political year has belonged to Nigel Farage – as The Times confirmed by awarding him Briton of the Year this week. Succeeding again will be tougher but if 2014 has taught anything it is to underestimate UKIP at your peril, for they have thrived on it. Strap in folks, we’re in for a bumpy ride.