Monday, December 31, 2012

UKIP, Europe and populism in the financial crisis

The rise of populist, extremist parties in Europe is a predictable result of the insecurity and political paralysis caused by the financial crisis. The recent rise of UKIP in Britain follows this trend, although in a way unique to the conditions of the British political environment.

UKIP began as a "core issue" party - Europe - and exploited the unspoken agreement between the three main parties on Britain's membership in the EU. It's gradual influence, through mostly European elections (while having negligible influence in Westminster elections), was then catapulted after the 2010 general election.

The financial crisis caused a predictable earthquake in many European countries; Greece being the most extreme example, followed by Italy, Hungary and other East European countries. Populism (especially right-wing extremism) has a habit of rearing its ugly head at times of socio-economic uncertainty and political paralysis.
In Europe, mostly ran by the Euro, its effect was that the currency's main paymasters, Germany, became the new bogeyman to those countries most badly affected by the crisis, and most in need of economic assistance. In co-ordination with the IMF, the economies of much of Southern Europe are now effectively part-owned by Germany. In Greece, the neo-Nazi "Golden Dawn" and radical socialist "Syriza" are the two forces rising against the austerity-supporting government. In Italy, the left is back on the rise, after Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing supporters fragment into factions and the country is ran by an unelected German-backed technocracy. In Spain and Portugal, mass civil protest is the main form of opposition to the German-backed austerity programme. In France, the former governing party, the UMP, is reduced to farcical in-fighting, replaced by the even more right-wing FN as the real opposition, while the Socialist government has already lost public respect after little more than six months in power.

The rapid rise of UKIP in Britain (at 15% in polls at the turn of the year) is a little more complicated than the situation in Europe. While in Europe, the main dividing line is between "pro" and "anti" austerity parties, in Britain there is a second axis of polarity - Europe.
When UKIP began as a political force 15 years ago, few people took it seriously. Although it did well in European elections, it was considered as nothing more than a protest vote. And so it may well have remained, if not for the coming-together of three core factors: rising East European immigration, the continued EU consensus by the big three parties, and the financial crisis.

 UKIP is popular now because its political positioning is in the right place at the right time. It is anti-EU, anti-immigration, economically libertarian, and socially conservative.

The anti-EU vote has been a thorn in the side of the Conservatives for years, contributing to the downfall of John Major, and causing headaches for party leaders ever since. The issue had never been fully resolved, the party divided between moderates and sceptics. This division in the party over what had seemed a marginal issue (as it was until a few years ago) had cost the Conservatives votes, until the governing Labour party fatally damaged its trust in the public eyes, giving the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt and a chance at government.
But Labour's long legacy of government was such that the Conservatives could still not be fully trusted to win in their own right: in 2010, many voters flocked to the LibDems, from both Labour and the Conservatives, resulting in the Conservative-LibDem Coalition government.

2010 was therefore a game-changer for UKIP, as it effectively left none of the "big three" parties as a suitable "protest vote" against the government - all were tarnished in one way or another. Over in France, the FN is currently benefiting from a similar situation. The steady erosion of the Conservatives competence in government has benefited Labour, who have regained much of their former support by disaffected LibDems; but crucially, UKIP's political positioning is such that it appeals as much to the populist working-class vote as to the disaffected middle class.

By being populist on various social issues (such as gay marriage, wind farms, immigration, and crime), and libertarian on economic issues (Europe, austerity and education) UKIP has cleverly found "cleft issues" that mean they can split the two big parties down the middle. This is how UKIP manages to gain support in both the North and South of England, from former Labour and Conservative voters respectively. This is similar to what the LibDems did only two years ago, but UKIP's populism appeals much more to the working class as they do the "chattering classes". The LibDems really only appealed to the latter, not the former.

To reiterate, UKIP would not have been as popular as they are now if there was no financial crisis and the Conservatives were not in government (with the LibDems). But the situation is as it is, and this is why UKIP is popular. The Conservatives are thus in a double bind: from the party's Euro-sceptics on the right, and the pro-European LibDems on the left. It is an impossible situation for any party to be in, and it is unsurprising that disaffected Conservatives are flocking to UKIP as the "real" Conservaties - which, in a way, they are.

Bearing in mind that there are around a hundred Euro-sceptic MPs in the Conservative party, the next year or two could be bloody. Many of those "Euro-sceptic" Conservatives are UKIP MPs in all but name. Things will only become more and more unstable in government as these impossible differences continue to be unresolved. David Cameron is not a natural leader; he is a follower. This effective power over his own MPs is minimal, as they continue to follow their own agenda (and consider how they will retain their seats in 2015). The debacle of the 1997 election campaign for the Conservatives may well be repeated in 2015 as Cameron continues to repeat the same errors as Major in failing to keep a tight hold of his party's factions.

As things stand, UKIP can expect to continue to grow in support, so that they and the LibDems may well have switched roles by the time of the 2015 election. One realistic outcome in the popular vote in that election is this: Labour 40%, Conservatives 30%, UKIP 20%, LibDems 5%.
The question, as always, it how many MPs UKIP would ever get in Westminster. UKIP has the same electoral weaknesses as the LibDems in the FPTP system - broad national support, but rarely concentrated in one constituency enough to gain MPs. Therefore the best way for UKIP to gain MPs in Westminster in the short-term is to attract defections from the Euro-sceptics.

As I said, there are at least a hundred potential target MPs for UKIP to attract. It depends on how clever Nigel Farage is. UKIP has the potential to change to political landscape of Britain - and propel Britain out of the EU.

In the film "V for Vendetta", the back-story to the plot was how the Prime Minister of the extremist government (the actor John Hurt) came to power - as a maverick Conservative MP who formed his own party, taking advantage of the political and social chaos at the time. Change a few of the details, and the back-story to that film seems worrying-close to the current reality.

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