Friends and foes of Britain’s UKIP party are hailing last night’s by-election results, in which the party won its first elected Parliamentary seat, as a breakthrough. It’s not quite, yet, but it’s interesting news.
By-elections occur in the UK when a member of House of Commons resigns or dies, as opposed to general elections, when the whole House is up for grabs. By-elections typically don’t involve a change in the overall parliamentary government, and so voters can and often do use them for protest votes. A by-election offers a chance to shake up the political establishment without running the risk that your vote will help the people you really dislike form a government.
For this reason, by-elections typically favor third parties and splinter groups. There’s another factor at work that many Americans don’t understand. There are 650 House of Commons seats for a UK population of 64 million, so on average fewer than 100,000 citizens make up the electorate for each seat. In the U.S. our House districts are about seven times that size; we have 435 Representatives for about 319 million people, so it is close to 750,000 people per seat. Given this fact, by-elections are often shaped by quirky local issues.
All of these factors were at work in the election of UKIP’s first Member of the House. Voters are not thrilled with the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now ruling in Westminster, and the UKIP candidate, Douglas Carswell, was very popular in the district and had already won a seat in Clacton as a Tory. Voters had the chance to vote for a known quantity in a protest vote with no consequences—ideal circumstances for a small party that wouldn’t be repeated in a general election.
In some ways the other by-election was a more interesting result, but here, too, a grain of salt is needed. In the historically safe Labour seat of Heywood & Middleton in left-leaning Greater Manchester, an insurgent UKIP candidate gave Labour a huge scare, losing by only 617 votes. Labour voters across the UK are if anything even less happy with the leadership of their party and more eager to shake it up than Tory voters are, so this wasn’t a pure pro-UKIP vote. But it will scare the Labour leaders, and it should: across Europe working class voters have been shifting to more nationalist and populist parties away from the established left, and Labour is going to have to start thinking about holding its base.
The barrier that UKIP has to cross before it becomes a significant party in its own right, not just a protest vote, isn’t whether it can do well in by-elections. The question is whether it can become a major force in general elections. Again, historically, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system has tended to make it hard for third parties to do well. You can have a national vote of 20 percent and end up with few or no seats in Parliament because your voters are scattered too thinly across the country. Regional parties like the Scottish Independence Party are an exception, but even the long-established Liberal Democrats have had trouble having a national impact.
Short of that lofty aim, though, UKIP is already having an impact, and its influence will grow after these election results. The leaders of both of the biggest parties will now be looking for ways to attract UKIP-leaning voters. Their stances on immigration, EU issues, and other hot-button social issues will continue to migrate toward UKIP positions. UKIP, they will hope, won’t be as attractive if both Labor and the Tories are courting its supporters.
We’ll see. The long history of UK politics, where a more or less stable two party system has roots that go back farther than the American Revolution, suggests that the big parties are tough and resilient. The last time a third party was able to elbow one of the big parties aside came almost a hundred years ago, when the working-class-based Labour Party displaced the Liberal Party as the most important left-wing party in the UK.
It’s clear that the UK is going through big political changes. The Scottish referendum shook things up, and if the final result is a devolution of power from the UK Parliament to the big units of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), then the political structure might change. England in particular would be a somewhat more right-wing country, and under those circumstances, one could see UKIP as a more populist party fighting a kind of establishment party made up of moderate Tories and Lib Dems. But there would be problems: UKIP wants out of the European Union and it’s very possible that if the UK leaves the EU, Scotland will walk out of the UK. UKIP seems like a strange name for a party whose program might break up the country it enshrines in its name. UKIP’s real future might be as an English National Party, a kind of south of the border mirror of the Scottish nationalists. (Though given the toxicity of the semi-fascist British National Party, they probably would want to steer clear of that name.)
The British establishment hasn’t been particularly good at running the country for the past hundred years, but it has historically been very deft and effective at domesticating populist movements that threaten the status quo. A clever mix of cosmetic concessions that pacify the masses and seductive offers of power and influence that attract the leaders of new movements into the establishment has helped make Britain one of the world’s most stable countries (no successful revolutions since 1688) for a very long time. With these new by-election results the British establishment—Tory, Labour, and otherwise—is now going to look much more carefully at how it can manage the UKIP challenge.
UKIP Shakes Up the UK Establishment
UKIP’s near-upset of Labor is in many ways more telling than its victory in Clacton. But the British elite has a long history of co-opting its malcontents.
Published on: October 10, 2014