Three Reasons Why UKIP Matters
BERLIN—Despite its growing popularity, the right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose platform includes anti-immigration policies and euro-skepticism, is likely to win only a few seats in Thursday’s general election. While polls indicate that about 13-15 percent of the British electorate supports UKIP, the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system will likely translate into only a handful of seats. For that reason, some political observers have consequently been quick to downplay UKIP’s significance. But the rise of right-wing populist parties in other European states suggests that UKIP will leave several lasting imprints on British politics.
For one, UKIP’s recent prominence further perpetuates the transformation of British politics from what is effectively a two-party system to a multiparty arena. The rise of right-wing populist parties across Western Europe has led to the steady fragmentation of traditional political camps, driving away voters from the mainstream center-left and center-right. UKIP’s recent successes correspond to this trend. Studies of voters show that they are drawn to UKIP not only because of dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, but because of a general disillusionment with the political establishment. Based on the experiences of other European countries, these voters appear unlikely to return to supporting the traditionally dominant Conservative and Labour parties in the foreseeable future.
Secondly, UKIP’s vote share will keep immigration on the national agenda for years to come. The advances of the Front National (FN), the Party for Freedom (PVV), and the Progress Party (FP) have led to immigration and asylum issues dominating the national agenda in France, the Netherlands, and Norway. UKIP has found a campaign issue where its message resonates well with a substantial share of British voters. This year, 50 percent of British voters identify immigration and asylum as among the most important topics in the upcoming election according to statista.com. Only the National Health Service is deemed similarly important. Furthermore, 26 percent of voters — a plurality — think UKIP has the best policies when it comes to British immigration and asylum policy.
Third, UKIP’s rise might lead to the Conservatives — known colloquially as the Tories — splitting over Europe, with substantial numbers defecting to UKIP, or evolving into a party advocating Britain’s exit from the European Union: a “Brexit.” About half of the voters of right-wing populist parties in Western Europe are former supporters of mainstream center-right parties who grew disillusioned with their purportedly pro-European and liberal policies. Trying to counter this trend, the French and Dutch conservative parties have adopted substantial parts of the populists’ agenda regarding the EU and immigration.
The Tories are now treading a similar path. If David Cameron is reelected prime minister, he will try to renegotiate Britain’s status within the EU and could put the issue up for a national referendum. However, major European powers such as Germany and France appear unwilling to renegotiate the fundamental basics of the European treaties. Disappointed over Cameron’s limited success in these negotiations, the powerful anti-EU wing among the Tories may defect to the UKIP. Alternatively, if the Tories lose the election, they will end up competing for the same electoral base as UKIP, turning them into a full-fledged Brexit party.
Even though UKIP will likely gather only a handful of seats in Westminster this Thursday, its rise has already altered the British political scene. Judging by similar developments elsewhere in Europe, the political scene in the U.K. will further fragment, immigration and asylum issues will remain salient for years, and — regardless of the outcome — the prospect of a Brexit will continue to loom large.
Timo Lochocki is a transatlantic fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.