Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Eastleigh by-election: what the LibDems and UKIP learned

I wrote earlier about the Eastleigh by-election, and how it may well signify a turning-point for UKIP.

UKIP's popularity comes from finding a clever niche that has developed in Britain's political spectrum from the effects of David Cameron's "modernisation" project of the Conservatives. Cameron's strategy since being leader has been to de-toxify the Tory brand by adapting it to the new social consensus that developed during the tenure of "New Labour". The direct effect of that was to alienate his core vote in the same way that Blair alienated his core voters.
Nigel Farage therefore saw "a gap in the market": in effect he is re-branding a "Thatcherite" vision for the 21st century: traditional Tory values for traditional Tory voters on one hand, and a more populist "core issue" stance (immigration, Europe, jobs etc.) to appeal to the aspiring working classes that Thatcher appealed to. In this way he appeals to a mixed demographic of disillusioned Conservatives and working-class Labour voters.

Farage is a populist demagogue, but a charming and charismatic one that makes UKIP a potential game-changer. The rise of UKIP, which seems irreversible due to the clever positioning of Farage's party, points to a new four party system in England. Scotland and Wales already have had their own versions with nationalists competing with the other three major parties; UKIP completes this trend now in England. I wrote in my previous article about UKIP that for them to make a significant breakthrough they would need to find a way of getting the system to work for them.
The surprising resilience of the LibDems is Eastleigh was a sign to UKIP of the way forward to their success.    Eastleigh has shown that the LibDems' success in parliament comes from localism. They have steadily built up their base over the last twenty years, using the FPTP system to their advantage. By making each constituency a LibDem bastion of local support and focus on local concerns, they have ensured loyalty to the sitting LibDem MP, and expanded gradually using the same approach. In effect, they have turned the disadvantage of the constituency-based British system for smaller parties to an advantage to create an electoral system based on local support rather than national issues. They are using the FPTP system for the purpose that it was actually intended, turning the system on its head against the top-down approach from Westminster.

This is the route that UKIP would be wise to take, and there are many indications that they have already learned that valuable lesson even before Eastleigh's near-breakthrough. The local council of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire is UKIP-ran, and UKIP makes a visible effort to show that they care deeply about the locality.
The Lib Dems are still likely to lose a fair number of their seats come 2015, but it is also likely that there will still remain a solid "core" of LibDem constituencies (say twenty to thirty) due to the focus on local issues that has bred a resilient loyalty to the party. A similar point is made here by Johnathon Freedland. This has given the LibDems a "teflon" quality that UKIP will want to replicate; a permanent feature in Westminster, and a force for the "big two" need to contend with.

Even the most optimistic UKIP activist cannot expect UKIP to gain more than a handful of seats come the 2015 election. But the LibDems were in a similar position twenty-five years ago; barely registering in the polls, with a handful of Westmister MPs. But that soon changed, and may well be the same for UKIP; using each election to improve on their previous result, as more and more people look to UKIP a serious party - not just as a "protest", but representing a serious voice in the political spectrum.

Changes in the British constitutional system may also play in their favour. Although Scots are unlikely to vote for independence (and the effective end to the UK), they are still likely to get their wish for more powers as a semi-detached part of the UK. And this will have an effect on the rest of the UK, in particular England and Westminster, as there will be more demands for greater powers to be passed down to the "big cities" and regions. This effect on localism may well also work in UKIP's favour, as it has done for the LibDems.

Then there is the "promised" EU referendum. But I suspect that UKIP will have a role to play even if this goes ahead, just as Cameron foolishly thought he had "killed the UKIP beast" with his promise of a referendum. Farage is rightly making the point that people are voting for UKIP not as a one-issue, anti-European party, but for a variety of reasons: the main one being that they are the only national party that stands against the "social democratic consensus".
As Farage justly points out, Cameron's "modernisation" of the Conservatives has had the effect of making the three major parties' stance very similar on many social issues. For those of the "non-PC club", UKIP is the only party that represents their views.

The UK in 2020 may be politically very different from the UK of twenty years before, especially for the Conservatives and Labour.  

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