With the European parliament elections drawing nearer, Simon Usherwood examines the prospects of UKIP repeating 2004, the year in which the Eurosceptic party did remarkably well in the European elections only to flounder in the 2005 general election. Organisational constraints remain and the party will continue its struggles to join a voting bloc in the European Parliament, just as in 2004. While the UKIP of 2014 is much stronger than that of 2004, we shouldn’t expect a breakthrough in 2015.
It’s the European elections and UKIP is triumphant. With its charismatic figurehead, it has been the story of the campaign, providing some life and excitement, in stark contrast to the other parties. With the momentum gathered from the late spring, UKIP manage to carry through to the autumn, where their party conference is full of talk of ‘killing the Tories’ in the next year’s general election.
This is not so much a pipedream as it is a half-remembered memory, of 2004. In that year, UKIP secured 2.66 million votes (16.2% on a turnout of 38.5%), pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place nationally: 12 MEPs were elected from 8 of the 11 electoral regions and the party won two seats to the London Assembly. By any measure, it was a key moment in the party’s history, confirming that the 1999 breakthrough was not a flash in the pan.
But let us reflect for a minute on 2004. The 2005 general election did not produce an equivalent result, with just 38 saved deposits (out of 496), despite its 606,000 votes (2.2%). Moreover, the charismatic figurehead in 2004 was Robert Kilroy-Silk, late of daytime TV, and his call to kill the Tories was to be the prelude to his failed attempt to take over the party, ultimately leading to his acrimonious resignation.
The 2009 elections similarly produced a very strong showing in the European elections, to be followed by a marginally improved result in the 2010 general election. All of which begs the question of whether UKIP is about to go for the hat-trick. This can be thought about from internal and external perspectives, so let us consider them in turn.
For its entire history, UKIP has been riven by organisational problems. In its efforts to be as democratic as possible, it created a structure that spread power between many different elements, but without having a depth of membership able to make that work properly. As Abedi and Ljundberg noted, this meant that relatively inexperienced individuals could gain influential positions, causing institutional gridlock and conflict. The party suffered three main schisms during the first 15 years of its existence, with court cases, overnight changing of locks and personal enmities that continue to the present day. Coupled to very unreliable finances, linked to a handful of donors, the party’s capacity to action was severely constrained.
Recent years have seen something of a shift on this. Firstly membership has increased (to 35,000 by the party’s last statement), providing more depth. Secondly, the stability of Nigel Farage’s leadership since 2010 has reducing the scale of internal strife: witness his willingness to jettison his close associate Godfrey ‘bongo-bongoland’ Bloom last year to credential his anti-racism. Thirdly, the financial base has also broadened, although not to the extent that the party would wish (as evidenced by the efforts to reclaim the funding blocked by the Electoral Commission).
However, organisational constraints remain. The ability to mobilise resources to contest individual constituencies (as in by-elections) is improved, but not comparable to other parties’. While there has long been a project of creating local associations – rather in the mould of the Lib Dems – the ability (or willingness) of the central party to support this has been rather insubstantial. The on-going weakness of vetting procedures for candidates also provides a demonstration of continued shortcomings in a key area of activity.
But the biggest constraint remains the person of Farage himself. A leader, rather than a manager, Farage’s stabilisation of the party has been primarily achieved through the creation of a cluster of supporters around him and the marginalisation of challengers. The very limited role for women in the organisation is a case in point, giving the lie to his recent claim that they are ‘taking over the party’. His unwillingness to play by conventional political rules is a strength (for example, his embrace of his fallibilities endears him to many), but also a weakness (as with his throwing out of his manifesto in January, leaving the party to campaign without an agreed platform)
Such personalisation of power is not uncommon in European counterparts – think of Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders – but the risks remain the same. No other figure in the party commands the same position in either the public’s eye or the party’s constellation of power. Thus, the recent statement by Farage, that he would step down if UKIP didn’t get a MP next year, potentially causes major issues for the party, if carried through.
The other way to think about UKIP’s chances of repeating 2004 is to consider the context within which it finds itself. Here there is a paradox in UKIP’s European success over the past decade. The strength of its showing is undoubted, but it has probably reached its structural limit. The switch in 1999 to proportional representation allowed the party to enter the European Parliament, but also meant that the original UKIP strategy of winning the large majority of seats, so provoking a crisis of membership, is now impossible, even in the medium-term. Thus, the likely gains that will accrue next month will bring marginal gains.
In addition, UKIP will struggle once again to form a group in the European Parliament. Le Pen’s Front National and Wilder’s Freedom Party have formed the core of an electoral coalition and will draw members away from any Eurosceptic grouping that UKIP might wish to lead: the personal dislike between Farage and Le Pen, plus the domestic cost to UKIP of being seen to consort with the radical right, put a strong block on joining forces. Consequently, UKIP might see its standing in the Parliament diminish, even as its numbers grow.
This has been evident for some time and helps provides another rationale for the broadening of UKIP’s message, away from its original anti-EU focus. If the party is to escape from being pigeonholed, then it has to demonstrate its value, even if only as a general protest vote.
And therein lies the rub. UKIP continues to define itself as a party of negatives: against ‘uncontrolled’ immigration, against the ‘political class’, against EU membership (probably in that order for most voters). That message has been very effective and carried the party to its current position, but it does not constitute a programme of government.
The manifesto issue mentioned above, is a window into this. Its hodge-podge of half-ideas and inconsistencies reflects simultaneously the lack of central organisation and oversight in its production, the very varied backgrounds of party members, and the lack of an ideological core to the party’s programme. The oft-touted label of libertarianism bears almost no inspection, while that of populism fairs only slightly better. Indeed, that the party can not only consider fighting an election without a manifesto, but also do so well as it will, highlights the depths that its status as a protest vote reaches.
Back to 2004?
So where does this leave the party? On the one hand, the UKIP of 2014 is much stronger than that of 2004. Its organisation, its personnel and its political leverage have moved the party to a different level from a decade ago. The continued inability/unwillingness of other parties to try and own the European issue (pace Nick Clegg’s recent efforts) provide a stronghold from which raids can been made across public policy. The long-term growth of the vote share in general elections will likely continue in 2015.
At the same time, a Westminster breakthrough remains unlikely, as does a 2017 referendum (which will depend on a Conservative single-party government). This potentially leaves UKIP in a limbo for five years, with little more than the odd skirmish in by-elections. If Farage does step down, then the party looks ripe for a more fundamental reinvention than has been attempted to date. But the story of 2004 was not only about follow-through to a general election. It was also about the resilience of the party, to internal and external challenges, challenges that took many years from which to recover.
Interesting, it was Kilroy-Silk who was the most prominent exponent of taking the fight to other parties and creating a new pole of political alignment. Regardless of what one might think of that, it was actually the party itself which rejected that view and approach. UKIP’s niche has long been one of thumbing a nose to the elites, and it is hard to see how that has changed. And while that remains the case, the party will find itself in the Groundhog Day of 2004 for some time yet.
This post is the first in a series of three that are derived from a panel on ‘UKIP, the European Parliament Elections and Beyond’, part of the Political Studies Association’s Annual Conference, Manchester April 2014.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Image credit: Jennifer Jane Mills CC BY 2.0
About the Author
Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2013). He tweets @Usherwood.