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Rumours of UKIP’s demise are very much exaggerated

farage in dustbinMore’s the pity. There has been some talk (or is it wishful thinking?) that UKIP are a busted flush. They’ve had their moment, but shit’s getting real. As people with lives and interests outside of politics start thinking about who should form the next government, the purple barmy army aren’t going to get much of a look-in. So, the argument goes, expect their polling numbers to fall steadily between now and May. It’s only February, but most polls might be indicative of a trend about to set in. This from UK Polling Report:

Time will tell if this is significant or not. Yet this hasn’t stopped some of the more excitable comment pack from forecasting its imminent demise. “UKIP are heading for the political scrapyard!” says Tim Montgomerie(£), after discovering that the party is an amateurish mishmash of anti-politics types, refugees from other parties, the terminally bigoted, and the odd. It can only go so far before it goes kaboom, or something like that. Poking around the rickety bandwagon, some significance is being read into Douglas Carswell’s comments about Enoch Powell. This sets him up against the party’s less-than-PC majority – as if his silly libertarianism ever sat easily with UKIP’s authoritarianism – and is also, apparently, evidence of “manoeuvres” and hence UKIP fighting like ferrets in the proverbial.

Unfortunately, UKIP aren’t going anywhere. Despite a recent Survation poll for South Thanet predicting Nigel Farage’s victory (I agree with Dan Hodges’ take), I remain of the opinion the party will only return Twee Dougie in May. At the very least it will do not as well as some of its more frenzied adherents suppose. This will cause ructions, fallings out, and feuds aplenty but when all is said and done UKIP will remain with us.

It’s very difficult for a political party to die. Look at the pummeling the LibDems have had, they’re still not dead. Yet, according to the political science literature, parties do have a lifestyle of sorts. Two of the key works here is a Towards a New Typology of Party Lifespans and Minor Parties (1982) and The Birth, Life and Death of Small Parties in Danish Politics (1991), both by Mogens N Pedersen. He argued that a new party has to cross four thresholds to establish itself. These are authorisation (official registration), declaration (the announcement of a party’s foundation and subsequent media coverage of it), representation, and relevance.

UKIP passed the first two in short order after its foundation 21 years ago, and has since seen its candidates successfully elected to democratic bodies of all levels, apart from the Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies, and the Scottish Parliament. UKIP has also proven its relevance because it has deeply influenced the terms of debate around immigration and the EU, and have required the three traditional Westminster parties change their strategies and tactics to meet the electoral challenge it poses.

None of this alone guarantees UKIP’s survival into deep political time. Its fate hinges on ‘linkage’. In Western liberal democratic systems, the primary functional outcome of party activity is the appointment of leading office-holders in the state apparatus, enabled by and recruited from voluntary party organisations rooted in one or more constituencies of people.

Parties, if they’re doing their job properly, act as bridging mechanisms between parliamentary elites and the wider population. Each party condenses the interests and aspirations of their constituencies and feed them upwards, acting as a spur to and a check on those at the top. New ‘challenger’ parties, like UKIP, appear to stake their success on articulating grievances and issues hitherto ignored by dominant political elites and haven’t, for whatever reason, been properly taken up by the existing parties.

However while this may help small parties, the danger is that either the issues which led to their success become less salient over time, or might be co-opted by parties capable of forming governments. Therefore small parties need to orientate themselves to a number of constituencies and establish a linkage function if they wish to be long lasting.

UKIP has experienced some success in this respect. In the first place, prior to 2010, they fed off disaffection with Labour. It went somewhat under the radar as the BNP grew more adept at attracting headlines and media attention, but nevertheless it furnished them with a band of regular anti-politics voters alienated from New Laboury managerial politics, and full of anxiety caused by increasingly insecure work patterns and the perception of immigration as a threat to a secure life.

After the general election, the organic crisis of the Conservatives began biting. This most vicious of governments swaddled its iron heel in velvet slippers as it kicked in and ground down living standards, upping the insecurity ante all the while. The biggest difficulty, of course, was Dave’s determination to push through equal marriage for same-sex couples. In Tory association after Tory association, activist resignations made their way from the provinces to CCHQ. Not only were these people opposed, they weren’t being “listened to”. For many thousands it summed the party leadership up – elitist, arrogant, out of touch, too liberal, not concerned with what the members thought.

Off they went to the UKIP tent, which with the low cunning that comes naturally to opportunism, has junked its libertarianism to provide a home for refugees uncomfortable with the country Britain has become. Even worse for the Conservatives, having lost their monopoly on being the voice of business during the New Labour years, now sections of capital – mostly finance – have started to get behind UKIP too. It is starting to represent a coalition of interests. UKIP will persist as long as that configuration of forces persist.

Beating UKIP, destroying them, reducing them to a footnote in British political history is a tricky job. The idea that if Tories dropped the namby-pamby stuff and bared its fangs to the world kippers swim back to the shoal is a non-starter as far as Tory electoral interests are concerned. Nor will carrying on as they are doing, hoping an EU referendum will lance the UKIP boil once and for all.

It therefore falls to Labour and the labour movement to take up the medium-to-long-term fight. If the well spring watering its grass roots are social anxiety and insecurity, only a programme designed to tackle those twin evils will do. Labour is part the way there, but unfortunately its hobbled by austerity fundamentalism. If the government after May doesn’t change tack, UKIP will not be eradicated. Regardless of how it performs this May, Farage or no Farage, the constituency for the party will still be there unless it is positively undermined. And if they are, so will UKIP too.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. James Martin says:

    Well what a very odd article. So many words, and yet no analysis of what the central aspect and effect of UKIP is – the EU (and linked to that immigration of course). And the problem here (and not just for Phil’s missed analysis) is that UKIP are the party that stands alone in the minds of the electorate on the EU against the cosy pro-EU consensus of the Tories, Labour, Lib-Dims and even the Greens.

    So while Europe and immigration stand high up the list of things that worry voters UKIP will continue to loom large. Yes, in a general election their impact will be far less than at a European parliament or bi-election one, but they will continue to exist (and in that sense) matter while those issues continue to be dodged or misunderstood by the rest.

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    Excellent piece in the latest New Left Review – the EC was set up to counter the then perceived threat of the USSR, to promote capitalism in Europe, and to give Europe a more independent voice against the dominance of the US. De Gaulle was originally against Britain’s entry because he felt it would act as a Trojan Horse for the US (which eventually happened) and the dollar was soon to dominate (hence the desire from some for the Euro). The Left in the EC needs to campaign to reform the treaties to kick Neo-Liberalism out. Instead of a top down Neo-Lib EC we need to build a grassroots, bottom up, democratic socialist Europe. Re immigration – we need to unite diverse working people – all those who create the wealth and make societies work and who have to sell their labour to live. Yours in international solidarity!

  3. Barry Ewart says:

    Footnote- forgot the missing bit of the jigsaw – we also need to trade unionise migrant workers to stop unscrupulous employers using them to undercut wages. This would also build community solidarity.

  4. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Well personally; faced with a Labor party being led by a sticking fingered public school-boy, (“Flipping,” Ed Balls, ) and an overpromoted nonentity Dead Ed Miliband who, “cares,” far more about the plight of the Palestinians than about IDS’s brutal cull of this countries disabled and who is promoting policies that are well to right of Thatcher, (even at her most completely barking,) I’ll certainly be voting UKIP.

    The only thing that might possibly bring a post Blair, (ultra right-wing or if you prefer a neo-libral,) Labor party back to it’s senses is that kind of swift kick to it’s collective genitalia, (assuming that Blair hasn’t completely removed them as well ?)

    The labour party are not even of one mind, (you say all that but,) “Despite a three-line whip in the House of Lords on a so-called fatal motion to kill the government’s controversial NHS regulations, the former Labor health minister Norman Warner says he will vote with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers, (incidentally, he, like Cherie Blair and many other Nu Labor Lovies has already invested his own money in private NHS suppliers.)

    Likewise the basically fascist government Work Program, that actually provides neither training nor useful experience in most cases and does nothing other than to prey upon, exploit and bully unemployed people for the profit of the same private companies that you so easily condemn above.

    A infamous quote attributed to Pound-Land sums the problem up, “Why should we pay people to work for us when we can get the government to make them work for us for nothing?”

    Even with out MPs whom apparently you can hire, “In the same way you’d hire a London Taxi,” the recent antics of Jack Straw and Malcom Riffkind being merely the most recent example of this well publicized phenomenon, they all look like exactly Tories from where I’m standing.

    In fact since Blair and like it or not; you’re all bloody Tories now.

  5. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    “sticking fingered,” should have read, “sticky fingered,” but thieving low life would do just as well……

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