John Harris

Journalist & Author

What if Ukip’s rise is more than a blip? | John Harris

The Guardian/ICM poll showing voters turning away from established parties could be the shape of things to come

What will the average Westminster politician think when he or she sees this fascinating, potentially watershed poll, and begins to digest what might happen if it represents not a blip, but the shape of things to come?

As often happens, perhaps the best thing is to step outside the usual terms of debate and quote Bob Dylan. Specifically, Ballad of a Thin Man, released as the world was tilting in all kinds of directions in 1965: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?”

Clearly, we are in the midst of a popular revolt against the political class. In Scotland, it has put a rocket under the SNP, who largely trade from the centre-left. In England, the de facto nationalist party is Ukip, proudly pitched on the populist right.

That their rise is an almost uniquely English story is self-evident: they currently score 23% in England, but only 2% and 6% respectively in Scotland and Wales. Their surge is also driven by men rather than women, by a ratio of nearly 2:1.

Just to offset the idea that their appeal runs no further than the south-east, they are apparently most popular in the Midlands. And though they seem to be attracting former Labour and Lib Dem voters in equal measure, those numbers are dwarfed by the support they are nicking from the Tories. This is, then, a story built around the realignment – whether temporary or permanent – of conservative politics, with both a small and a large “c”.

If you want to picture it in its barest essentials, think of an increasingly irate white man of 65 in Edgbaston, who once voted Tory, but now can’t see the point.Note the fact that on these numbers, the public has slightly warmed to the EU, which only points up what a multifaceted business this is. On the occasions I’ve observed Ukip’s campaigning, what has hit home is that both their voters and recent recruits express an exasperation with the Conservative party that is more cultural than policy-based. Certainly, there are issues in there, which run from EU withdrawal, through the linked subject of immigration, to Britain’s foreign aid budget.

But what’s most interesting is the sense of a disconnection between former members of the English Tory tribe, and its current supposed leaders. Many former Conservatives miss the demotic straight-talking of your Thatchers and Tebbits. They sense not just that David Cameron and George Osborne have no understanding of the daily grind, but that they are made from the same stuff as Tony Blair, whom they still hate: metropolitan, affected, slick and superficial.

Underneath all this, many more aspects of British politics are in flux. Before 2010, the Lib Dems provided the centre-left with the equivalent of what Ukip now offers on the right, but beyond a big drop in support, the end of their time as a fuzzy protest party is something whose consequences are still rippling through politics (that said, they are now clinging on to double figures, which is some achievement).

While the economy is in such a mess and Tories are freshly at each other’s throats, if Labour is only attracting 34% support among people who are likely to vote, it is in a pretty bad place.

In fact, its travails are partly of a piece with those of the Tories, and come down to a sense that Labour politicians have long been uncoupled from their voters. Despite Ed Miliband’s recent efforts, orating from a wooden pallet in provincial shopping centres and taking on all-comers, that does not look like a breach that is likely to be quickly healed.

These figures, in fact, evoke a long story, which takes in decades of slow voter dealignment, and such recent(ish) stories as the Iraq war and the expenses scandal. Its single biggest strand, though, is the professionalisation of politics, which was cemented during the New Labour years, and has since created not just disaffection, but the gaping hole into which Nigel Farage has been only too happy to jump. Now, we could be witnessing the birth pangs of a four-party political model that our creaking electoral system simply cannot accommodate (note that Ukip was on the “‘yes” side in the 2011 AV referendum).

In the meantime, even if they are squeezed in 2015, Ukip spells big electoral trouble for the Tories, and presents them with an almost unanswerable question: should the Conservative party further chase after its malcontents to the right and risk what the PM and his circle would call “retoxification”? Or try and somehow stay put, while Farage continues to wreak his mischief? More generally, on these figures, another coalition of some kind looks like a very reasonable bet.

To finish, then, back to Dylan, and his obligatory protest classic The Times they are a-Changin’: “The line it is drawn/ The curse it is cast/ The slow one now Will later be fast … The order is/Rapidly fadin’.” It certainly is.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 at 6:27 pm and is filed under Guardian RSS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Is Labour ready to turn the state upside down in 2015? | John Harris | Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender by Rhian E Jones – review »
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