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.

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