Last Thursday, the United Kingdom Independence Party [UKIP] won its first ever seat in the British House of Commons. For years, UKIP, led by the flamboyant Nigel Farage, has been a major party among the British contingent in the European Parliament, but winning a seat in the British national parliament had so far never succeeded.
Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party [UKIP] (Image source: Euro Realist Newsletter/Wikimedia Commons)
UKIP stands for the preservation of Britain's identity and sovereignty. It wants to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union and aims for tougher immigration policies. Last August, Douglas Carswell, Member of Parliament for Clacton in Essex (a prosperous county to the East of London) defected from the Conservative Party to UKIP. Carswell had been elected for the Conservatives in 2010 with a 53% majority – a 28% lead over Labour. After his defection, he gave up his seat, so that a by-election had to be held. On October 9, Carswell was re-elected on a UKIP ticket, with 60% of the vote and a 35% lead over the Conservatives.
The interesting thing is that UKIP not only managed to more than halve the Conservative vote (from 53% to 25%) but also the Labour vote (from 25% to 11%), and the Liberal Democrat vote (from 13% to 1.5%.)
UKIP also did extremely well in the by-election in Heywood and Middleton, a constituency near Manchester in the north of England. This part of the country is a Labour Party stronghold. In 2010, Heywood and Middleton went to Labour with 40% of the vote – a 13% lead over the Conservatives.
Last Thursday, Labour won 41% of the vote, but UKIP came second with an astonishing 39%. Four years ago, the party had only received 3% of the vote. The Conservatives saw their share of the vote drop from 27% to 12%; the Liberal Democrats from 23% to 5%.
UKIP originated as a party of dissatisfied Conservative voters. However, as Nigel Farage pointed out last Friday, "UKIP is now tearing great holes in the old Labour vote." Heywood and Middleton was considered a safe Labour seat, at a time when Labour was in the opposition against an unpopular coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
As if last Thursday's blows to the British political establishment were not enough, on Sunday, a nationwide opinion poll revealed that one in four Britons intend to vote UKIP in next year's general elections. According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, the ratings would result in UKIP winning 128 seats in the next House of Commons, against 253 seats for Labour, 187 seats for the Conservatives, 11 seats for the Liberal Democrats, and 71 seats for other parties, such as the Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists and the Ulster Unionists. The Conservatives currently hold 303 seats, Labour 257 seats, the Liberal Democrats 56 seats, UKIP 1 seat, and the others 33 seats.
If this prognosis becomes reality at the next elections, which are to held by May 7, 2015 at the latest, a coalition government of the Conservatives and UKIP would still be 11 seats short of a majority. Hence, Britain would become virtually impossible to govern unless there were a coalition of Labour and the Conservatives, which is highly unlikely. However, since UKIP has not lost its momentum yet, it might very well be able to pick up an additional 11 seats from other parties than the Conservatives (read: Labour), which would result in a coalition government of the Conservatives and UKIP.
Strategically, it is currently in the interest of both the Conservatives and UKIP that UKIP move to the left in order to pick up Labour votes. Traditionally, UKIP is economically to the right. The party calls itself libertarian and stands for a small state and low taxes. These values appeal mostly to the Conservative voters. However, UKIP also stands for strong policies on law and order and immigration, which appeal to voters in the traditional old Labour heartlands. Some commentators, such as the editors of The Economist, expect that UKIP leader Farage will eventually "pull a muscle" when he tries to bend towards Labour and Tory voters simultaneously.
The examples of Marine Le Pen's National Front in France and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom [PVV] in the Netherlands, however, show that it is possible to attract voters from both the right and the left. Mr. Wilders' party successfully combines anti-tax and anti-immigration policies. So do the Swiss People's Party [SVP] in Switzerland and the Danish People's Party [DF] in Denmark. Given the Anglo-Saxon orientation of the Dutch and Mr. Wilders' admiration for Margaret Thatcher, the PVV especially might serve as an example for UKIP.