Ukip’s by-election victories at Clacton and Rochester and the near thing at Heywood has caused a flurry of excitement among the chattering classes. Nigel Farage believes his time has come: ‘it’s the start of something big’. But I’m going stick my neck out a very long way and predict that Ukip has reached the crest of its particular wave. The wave is about to break, either before or at the general election next May. For them, this is as good as it gets.
There are two reasons to believe that this is not a beginning, but the beginning of the end for the Ukip bubble. For the first, we need to look at the numbers a bit more rationally than journalists do. For the second, we need to assess the nature of Ukip’s position.
First, the numbers, Journalists have made all sorts of lazy and frankly daft comparisons with the Scottish referendum. Rafael Behr for instance, lamenting about the poor old Lib Dems in the Guardian, repeated the idiotic assertion of Clegg that ‘anti-politics nationalism … fill Ukip’s sails and drive Scotland towards separatism.’ Even leaving aside the grotesque assumption that nationalism can somehow be ‘anti-politics’, the association of the two phenomena is completely wrong.
Support for Ukip in England may to an extent stem from the same distrust and contempt with which the Westminster neo-liberal establishment parties are held and a vague desire for a different politics that’s found on both sides of the border. But that’s as far as it goes. In Scotland this summer, we saw a genuine grass-roots democratic drive. In contrast Ukip is fundamentally a creation of the media.
From Robert Kilroy-Silk (remember him) to Farage, Ukip has been dependent on the oxygen of publicity from an uncritical media. The media obsession with Ukip deserves more analysis some time. Whether it’s the fascination of liberal-minded journalists with the forbidden fruit of the far right or a more sinister decision by the corporate owners to move the political discourse rightwards, the media circus queues up to feed the prejudices of middle England.
While in Scotland the Yes campaign won its greatest support from those aged 25 to 39 and its least support from pensioners, in Ukip’s case it’s the opposite. Ukip’s highest support is found among those aged over 65. Another contrast is that in Scotland genuine grass-roots debate and involvement was capped by record turnout levels not seen since the early 1950s. A couple of days before the Clacton by-election a Ukip spokesman was reported as saying ‘when it matters, people vote’. In that case, for most people in Clacton, Rochester and Heywood it plainly couldn’t have mattered.
Turnout in all three seats dropped precipitously from 2010 despite a blizzard of media attention. Indeed, some white van drivers in Rochester remained unaware there was a by-election going on.
Ukip only achieved its ‘landslide’ because the three centre-right parties did so badly. Even in Clacton, with a sitting MP and intense levels of media coverage, turnout only just crept over 50%. Only around three in ten of the voters in Ukip’s most winnable seat in the UK actually bothered to vote for them. Another two in ten voted for other parties. But half couldn’t be arsed to put a cross on a piece of paper. This is a pretty unimpressive ‘revolt of the left behind’.
In Rochester Ukip won the seat with just over two fifths of the electors voting for them. In Heywood they almost won the seat with the votes of just 14%, or one in seven, of the electorate. Labour did win with a very slightly less pathetic 15%! Just 31% of voters voting for Ukip in Clacton, 21% in Rochester and 14% in Heywood looks underwhelming, given that by-elections provide the perfect consequence-free opportunity to strike a blow at the establishment, send a message to London, or whatever.
Back in May, even though the local elections were moved to coincide with the European elections, thus playing directly into Ukip’s hands, the party only won 4% of the available council seats. Fewer than one in ten of the electorate (9.4%) actually voted for Ukip in the European elections. 15.2% voted for non-Tory, centre right, centrist and progressive parties (from Labour and the Lib Dems leftwards). Yet this was the best possible context for Ukip.
Conditions for Ukip will never be better. When next May comes around Ukip will find it a lot more difficult to counteract the steady drip of ‘vote Ukip and you’ll get Miliband’ from the Tories. Or the tribal drift of a proportion of voters back to their familiar, safe homes. Or the feeling on the part of some that electing a government is somehow a meaningful issue too serious for dabbling with protest voting.
Make no mistake. The large number abstaining shows that the three London-centric parties continue to ignore and misunderstand the level of disillusionment in the provinces to their peril. It also demonstrates that the potential exists for a genuinely populist alternative to the tired Westminster parties. But that party isn’t Ukip. And in my next blog I’ll explain why.