To date, the majority of pre-local-election attention has focused on UKIP and its potential to diminish or fracture the mainstream vote; particularly that of the Conservatives. In an environment which has – by any standard – undergone substantial change in recent years, the thought that a comparatively small party has the potential to alter the new status quo is important, especially in the run up to a General Election.
So why is UKIP attracting the support it does? While a number of explanations spring to mind, three stand out.
First, the party’s policies resonate with a sizable portion of the electorate, namely disaffected conservatives and those who feel that the mainstream has failed to address their concerns. Indeed, the majority of polls report the party attracting at least 10 per cent of the vote.
Second, UKIP is the leading small party contender in this contest. The largely decimated BNP provides no opposition and neither do the English Democrats. The Greens – though sizable by small party standards in this country – are beleaguered by voter perceptions which seem unable to associate them with bread and butter politics, and despite the party’s efforts to articulate strong opposition to austerity-related policies, their gains are likely to be minimal.
This leads to the third reason for UKIP’s support: it may well have more to do with the other parties than itself. The electorate is largely unsatisfied with the three main alternatives. Despite the dismal economic situation and unpopularity of the Conservative-led government , Labour’s polls are abysmal for this point in the electoral cycle while the Liberal Democrats are just trying to survive. Most importantly none of the mainstream party leaders seem able to fill the electorate with confidence, and despite the gloomy economic situation – though Cameron and Osborne must be grateful for small mercies, given the narrow avoidance of a triple dip recession – Labour remains unable to secure the electorate’s confidence in its economic policies. All things considered, it is little surprise that UKIP’s policies and Farrage’s charismatic maverick qualities have attracted an audience.
Of course, for every positive, there is at least one negative. Vote intentions do not necessarily predict election day results and even if they did, UKIP would suffer because of its widely distributed support base. As a result, the electoral system will probably produce a very poor votes/seats ratio for the party. Furthermore, turnout is likely to be low as these elections will run alone. This is bad news for UKIP which will not be able to bag a vote for the local council on the back one for the European Parliament, as it did in 2009.
Yet, whatever the results, UKIP’s support to date is important and should not be ignored, even if it sheds more light on the political environment than UKIP itself.
Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory. She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.