UKIP: Building a Party when the “Party” is Over?


UKIPs undoubtedly successful showing in the (mostly) English local elections has left many analysts speculating over whether this is a sustainable political shift to “four party” politics or not?

Of course, its not as simple as that – we already had four party politics in Scotland and Wales, although it could be argued the Tories are so weak in both it’s more like three party politics – just not the same three as in England.

The question I’ve been pondering is what it takes to create a sustainable new party, especially in an era where “party” politics appears to be in decline?

Politically a new party probably needs two key characteristics: a set of values or a mindset that makes it distinctive, and a constituency of supporters who hold that broad set of values already.

UKIP’s “usp” (unique selling point) is not just about Europe. I’d suggest there’s probably five key strands. First, national sovereignty and withdrawal from Europe; second, reduction in immigration; third, roll back equalities legislation and culture; fourth, a small state; and lastly, a liberalised economy. Of course, some of these policies potentially conflict – for example opening up Britain as a completely ‘free trade’ economy may be more difficult outside the EU. And ‘free trade’ in everything except people is hard to sustain.

But, as my colleague at Manchester Rob Ford has identified, UKIP does seem to have found a constituency for these views – the somewhat older blue-collar and self-employed, with a fundamentally nationalistic and socially conservative mindset. In the past these people have tended to be associated with both the Tories and ‘old Labour’, presenting a problem for both main parties, although slightly more so for the Tories.

Organisationally, a party probably needs three things: a ‘core group’; money; and a network of activists. UKIP currently doesn’t appear to have any of these, yet.

The successes in the local elections could certainly lay the basis for a much better network of activists and local bases for UKIP. The fact they managed at all to field so many candidates also speaks to a growing activist base.

On the funding front there is certainly the opportunity to raise substantial funds, especially from the finance sector where fear of EU regulation of the City is escalating.

But it is in the creation of a substantial “core group” that UKIP seems weakest. The fact they had to bring back Nigel Farage as leader after he’d resigned, and the almost complete absence of other credible performers does not look good. Recent revelations that UKIP were considering buying policies “off the shelf” from righting think-tanks says a lot about their lack of core capacity.

None of this may matter depending what UKIP’s real strategy is. In his interview on the Today programme after the local elections, Nigel Farage was asked if he foresaw a UKIP “reverse take-over” of the Tories, the way some suggest the SDP effectively took over New Labour, albeit indirectly. Farage pointedly didn’t say no. It could well be their strategy not to really become a “fourth” party, but to act as a ginger-group to create change in the Conservative Party. Alternatively, they may be hoping to break off a substantial block of Tory MPs, Councillors and local activists to cement their base and core group and become a viable right-wing populist party.

If, as many analysts are suggesting, we are heading into a period of multi-party coalition politics, such a force could have a disproportionate effect on a coalitions governments policies, as has happened elsewhere in Europe.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on party organisation, or on the ecology of party politics for that matter, but there are some fascinating questions starting to emerge alongside UKIPs recent successes.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Political Economy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to UKIP: Building a Party when the “Party” is Over?

  1. Davy Jones says:

    Genuine Question: Do you think the Greens have the necessary characteristics – we certainly don’t have the money !

    Davy

    Davy Jones davy@davyjonesconsultancy.co.uk http://www.davyjonesconsultancy.co.uk twitter: @davyjones2 07932 616843

  2. colinrtalbot says:

    Hi Davy,
    I haven’t really studied the Greens as a party enough to really answer your question. It certainly appears from outside that until recently the Green Party appeared to be a one woman show. I’ve seen a few stories about how you have struggled to create a more collective leadership group, probably not helped by the media’s tendency to narrow everything down. You do on the other hand seem to have a well established, if small, network of activists and the start of some local bases. And, again without having studied it, the Green Party does seem to have a much broader set of well developed policies – although again I don’t think they necessarily come across to the general public, yet.

    Colin

  3. Strategist says:

    I can’t get past the headline of this piece, and that apostrophe.

  4. colinrtalbot says:

    the apostrophe was a deliberate attempt at a joke, but it clearly hasn’t worked!

  5. brian carr says:

    I think that we are on the verge of a change in politics, but not along the lines you suggest.
    The split is not between left/right any more it is going to be us against multinationals. To the extent that UKIP has latched on to some popular policies on immigration, and independence from EEC.will be the basis of the ‘us’ sector, but their free trade policy, which will play into the global economy, risks swapping an EEC we can’t control with multinationals they cannot control either..
    So UKIP have no sustainable ideas, it will give an opportunty to any of the other parties to offer a balance of freedom and responsible controls/ regulation.
    I believe that the party that picks up this mantle will win the next election. I think its broadly what the country wants, and most people could sign up to it.

  6. Chris Wilson says:

    Aren’t UKIP an echo of the tea party? There support is drawn from older blue collar workers, but there policies are actually in support of international finance capitalism. The risk to them is that if that dichotomy is exposed they could lose support. Or they could emulate the tea party in persuading poor people that it’s in their interest to support tax cuts for the rich. A lot of the commentary on the US presidential election was that the Republicans problem was relience on older, poorer angry white men who are a declining segment of the population. UKIP seem to have the same problem. Their supporters are the people left behind by the search for the support of younger, more diverse urban voters who are seen as necessary for electoral success. But that logic isn’t going to change.

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