Monday, May 20, 2013

The UKIP surge and the Conservative meltdown

The phrase "crisis in the Conservative Party" has been used a lot in recent times, but now we can truly say there is one: an existential crisis, even.

I wrote before about how the current meltdown of Conservative discipline can be squarely laid at David Cameron's feet. When the leadership of any party seems to be in a different plane of thought and existence separate from much of its supporters, the result is a split.

As a result, there are now three identifiable "factions" on the right of British politics at the moment (two in Westminster, technically in the same party).

There are the "official" Conservatives, who support the PM, David Cameron (the "Cameroons") and his metropolitan-minded, post-Blairite project.
Then there are the "traditional" Conservatives, who include those MPs who oppose the "Cameroons", and are typically Eurosceptic and against gay marriage, for example, are ideologically much closer to UKIP than the "Cameroons", but not yet ready to abandon their party altogether (at least not yet; and may be reconciled if they can replace Cameron).
Then there is UKIP, who are now growing in support daily, as more of the "traditional" Conservatives jump ship altogether; either on point of pride or ideological principle, or in despair of ever seeing a leader of the Conservatives that can win an election. Although not in Westminster, they are the faction that is holding the "official" Conservatives to ransom with the threat of siphoning-off a significant number of the "traditional" Conservatives to their own cause. They are also the most influential faction of the three, and only look like getting bigger.

We've been here before. That happened with Labour after losing the 1979 election; as Nigel Farage himself knows (and has said),the SDP were the result of the factionalism in the Labour party; UKIP are a result of the factionalism in the Conservative party. Yet this is a simplification: for UKIP more closely match the ideology and attitudes of Thatcherism, rather than a splinter group of extreme Conservatism.
What marks UKIP out is as much the broadness of its support base across sections of society as much as its ideology; this was what made Thatcherism , whether you like it or not, a success as a brand and a political ideology. Farage is the political heir of Thatcher - this much seems clear, and it is poetic that Farage's brand of neo-Thatcherism is on the verge of breaking open the political consensus (and tearing the old Conservative Party to pieces) as Thatcher herself passes away.
But UKIP are not a centre-right version of the SDP; if anything, UKIP's power-base looks broader and more potentially more stable over time than the marginal (albeit influential) effect of the SDP. While the SDP forced Labour to steal their clothes to become electable, these days it looks like UKIP are the ones who have stole the Conservatives' clothes in order to refashion a more down-to-earth Conservatism. As one Conservative defector said the other day:
"I didn't leave the Conservative Party; the Conservative Party left me".

If Cameron and his advisors are not already panicking, then they should be. By any margin, what is happening in the Conservative Party is a hollowing-out of its own supporters. At the current rate of defections, the "official" Conservative Party will have barely any supporters at all outside of the suburbs of some towns and cities. As the shires turn to UKIP in ever greater numbers, and the inner cities in some parts of the North and Midlands also defect from Labour to UKIP (as we have already seen in some parts of Yorkshire), the old Conservatives may well represent little more than demographic "doughnuts": rings of suburbs populated by mildly-right-wing, metropolitan "compassionate Conservatives" that fit in with Cameron's demographic targeting.

We are living through a political watershed moment in British politics. 2012/2013 will be seen in a few years time by political historians as the time when UKIP broke through, and punched a hole through the heart of the old Conservative Party. David Cameron has single-handedly destroyed his party; Nigel Farage was simply in the right place at the right time to take full advantage.

The rise of UKIP, especially its sudden rise in the last six months, was predicted by almost no-one. The same could be said of the "Arab Spring" (though I won't make any comparisons!). A specific set of circumstances has led to the current, sad (even farcical) state of the Conservative party, and the political establishment in general. As all of the three main British parties have been somehow tarred by the financial crisis, people looked for another way to express their frustration. UKIP, like many other parties in Europe (and intriguingly like Beppe Grillo's "Five Star Movement" in Italy), has been the recipient of the political chaos and paralysis visited on the political establishment around Europe from the financial crisis.

I mention the "Five Star Movement" (as I have before) because UKIP's rise, like Beppe Grillo's "party", is a grassroots-based one, without media or financial support. UKIP's rise has mostly been through word-of-mouth. In a way, the British electorate have used the political system against the establishment, ignoring the massed organisation of the "big three", and have voted UKIP often without knowing who their candidates are, or what many of the policies are. The last point is more disturbing, though also an indication of the sheer frustration that many people feel with the perceived orthodoxy of the "big three", that they see in UKIP the answer to their problems, whatever they may be.

As right-wing commentators are often keen to mention, Cameron has turned the Conservatives into a "socially democratic" outfit. The legacy of Blair was Cameron being elected as leader of the Conservatives in order to out-do Blair at his own game. By 2010, therefore, there was little to distinguish between the "big three" on many issues: all were pro-EU, socially-progressive parties, for the most part. They only majorly differed on how to deal with economy.

It took time for the electorate to grow tired of the Con-Lib Coalition. By the autumn of 2012, two-and-a-half years into the parliament, significant numbers of the electorate became singularly uninspired and frustrated with the quality of political discourse from all the main parties, as well as the poor quality and complacency of the politicians in Westminster. Nigel Farage's charisma and down-to-earth approach began to strike a serious chord, as well as the consistent simplicity of his message.

Like Thatcher forty years ago, when she became Conservative Party leader, she was seen as an outsider compared to her peers, but spoke with clarity, charisma and conviction. We all know the result. Farage seems to have been cut from the same cloth. Although the political system is stacked against him and his party, the UKIP insurgency is already causing a political earthquake, shaking the foundations of the old Conservative party to the core.


  1. You forgot to mention the most important thing of all: Immigration.

    1. That's true, though I'd say immigration has only really become a "serious" issue since the recession started five years ago - because people can see that Eastern Europeans are taking jobs which they don't have, for example. Before the recession, that wasn't a major problem. It is now, though, and so UKIP's solution makes a lot more sense to those people now.