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Will 2015 be the year of UKIP?

UKIP voters election

Image courtesy of Jennifer Jane Mills, flickr.com

Having just won their second seat at Westminster and riding high at 17% in most opinion polls, are UKIP on track to deliver an earthshattering shake-up of British politics at the General Election?

UKIP’s current poll rating is certainly a significant development from the 3% of votes they received at the 2010 General Election.  Over the last five year the party campaign machine has professionalised and Nigel Farage has demonstrated a rare quality for connecting with voters.

UKIP has very effectively tapped into a deep seated discontent amongst traditional blue collar workers who feel left behind by modern “post-Blair” politics. Emily Thornberry’s recent career ending, white van man mocking Rochester tweet was significant exactly because it magnified this divide when the Labour Party most wanted to pretend that it wasn’t part of the story.

But it’s easy to get carried away amid the media hype about UKIP’s success. As someone who has worked for the Liberal Democrats, I know just how hard it can be for a smaller party to convert temporary popularity to electoral success in our first-past-the-post electoral system.

Take the last election for example. At the height of “Cleggmania” the Lib Dems could boast 34% in some opinion polls, they then secured just 24% on polling day (up 1% on 2005), but lost 5 seats. The lesson: temporary poll surges don’t always translate into votes or seats at General Elections.

Similarly, in 1983 the newly formed Liberal-SDP Alliance won 25% of the vote – nearly as many as the Labour Party – but it secured just 23 seats.  On the other hand, with just 2.2% more votes, the Labour Party retained 209 MPs, demonstrating the value of political establishment and just how hard it can be for a newcomer on a popular wave to break through.

In 1983 the split on the left of the left gave Thatcher an unexpected landslide. The Tories gained 58 seats despite a slight drop in the popular vote.

Likewise, unless Cameron is able to woo enough of the traditional Tory voters that have turned to UKIP back then it is entirely possible that in 2015 UKIP’s main impact will be to do for the right, what the Alliance did for the left, splitting the Conservative vote enough to give Labour power on the most modest of swings.

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