Saturday 16 May 2015

The end of UKIP

The UK general election delivered several earthquakes at once. So far, most of the commentariat focused on the second largest party, Labour, and its demise in Scotland and England (incidentally, Labour also lost long held seats in the Labour heartland of Wales).

Yet, UKIP was also thrown into turmoil in the aftermath of the election. Nigel Farage, true to his word given prior to the election, resigned from the leadership, only to be acclaimed again as the new leader by the party's national executive. 'Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!'

Whilst Farage himself is likely to survive this self-inflicted de-thronement, the chances of survival for his party in the long term look marginally more bleak. It appears to me that UKIP, despite netting an unprecedented number of votes, has only one way to go: downhill.

The reasons are manifold but the central issue is salience. Political scientist regularly establish rankings of issues in people's minds through polling evidence. Whatever comes high up on the list has high salience, i.e. has the capacity to sway people's votes in future elections. The issue UKIP is most associated with is the European Union and immigration from the European Union. As part of a 'de-toxifying' effort, Farage clearly distinguishes between immigration from the EU (uncontrolled, hence bad) and from overseas (controlled, hence good). This means the party has consistently focused its policy attention on the EU and is wedded, for good or ill, to the European issue.

Evidence from polling however also consistently shows that Europe itself ranks low on people's minds, in other words, Europe has low salience. Once politicians are seen to be addressing the European issue (renegotiation of benefit tourism and gaining approval for changes through a referendum), voters' attention to Europe is likely to decline even further. I have previously argued that the dominant mode of thought for British voters about Europe is one of benign neglect rather than exasperation as to any alleged lack of urgent action.

This spells problems for UKIP. Being asked at Question Time what the purpose of UKIP could be once the referendum is done, Farage pointed out that the raison d'etre of Scottish Nationalists was similarly questioned after the Scottish Independence referendum but they seemed to have survived it rather well.

Yet, as Farage is undoubtedly aware, the SNP always had a proper agenda for social and economic change. Their purpose did not exhaust itself in bringing about an independence referendum. The reason they are in government in Edinburgh is exactly because the policies they formulated relate to a broad range of issues with high salience for people across Scotland, from unemployment, poverty to health care. For all its willingness to change, UKIP is still a one man show and a one issue political party. That's why it is hard to see it making inroads with voters beyond 2016. GE2015 might just have been the last squeak of the UKIP mouse.

Friday 8 May 2015

The move to the left that never happened

When Ed Miliband was selected as the new Labour Party leader, the cameras picked up his brother David mouthing to a colleague: 'He will crush and burn.' That's exactly what has happened. So where did it go so wrong?

Part of the problem was that Miliband's analysis of post-crisis Britain was fundamentally wrong. Miliband thought that the country has moved to the left. He took the chit chat about inequality in academia and the Westminster village as reflecting support for socialist principles. He was wrong and anybody who wanted to listen carefully two or three years ago, could have known this. The second miscalculation was that Labour believed their own rhetoric that the Conservatives had moved to a soulless ghoulish right of the political spectrum. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite all the noise from the Polly Toynbees in the intellectual elite, the election has shown that policies of Tories resonate with people in the electoral centre ground.

The fascinating thing is to step back and look at the defeat of Labour in a wider (European) context. The party may lick its wounds for months to come, and may shift even more left as a consequence, yet if they afford themselves a good look across Europe they would see that any social democratic party that relinquishes the centre ground loses elections.

Today, it may look like a disaster has befallen Labour, but my feeling is that even more pain will be felt until they challenge the Conservatives in the centre ground.

Monday 4 May 2015

Ed Miliband's lack of self-confidence

I told myself that I was not going to comment any further on the General Election 2015 on this blog. But Ed Miliband has a way of twisting people's arms. So, I have to confess: I can't resist saying something on his latest blunder, the 8ft stele Ed wants to install in No 10 Downing St (if he ever gets to live there).

Mil(l)stone around their neck or gravestone of Labour's campaign?

The stone slab that lists some of the most vacuous 'commitments' in Labour's electoral history was presented to the media last week and already induced laughter and derision (as well as despair) from friend and foe. It is not so much the question 'what he was thinking'. What astonishes me is that neither he nor anybody in his immediate election campaign team raised alarm bells. Did really no one say: 'Hold on, what are we doing here?' The slab ostensibly speaks to a lack of common sense and judgement in Labour's team, a point that did not go unnoticed by commentators.

The contrast between the utter malleability of the pledges and their alleged 'permanence' through the choice of material adds an ironic twist to it, reflecting the gulf between Miliband's motivation and his inability to say anything committal in this campaign. In this sense, Miliband has done the country an enormous service with this gimmick of Gordon Brownian proportions. We now know: the more he insists, the less sure he is of himself.