One of the more surprising features of the election campaign is UKIP’s low profile. It’s early days of course, but so far this has been the Dave-and-Ed Show (guest-starring Alex Salmond).
Unlike the run-up to previous elections we haven’t seen UKIP support melting away. The party’s ratings have been squeezed a bit, but they remain in double figures. Tonight’s debate may give Nigel Farage the opportunity to transmute these numbers into campaign momentum, but it also illustrates his big problem – which is that he’s lost his status as the only challenger to the Westminster elite. The UKIP leader will be one of four ‘outsiders’, but unlike the three women who respectively lead the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, he will look and sound like the three middle-aged, southern males who lead the establishment parties.
Physical appearances aside, Farage should, in theory, stand out from the crowd. Indeed, UKIP owes its prominence to the fact that the values it stands for are quite distinct from those espoused by the other parties. However, trying to define these values is tricky.
For a start, there’s the ideological incoherence of UKIP’s various factions (documented in Mark Wallace’s indispensable field guide). To this we can add a notably fluid approach to policy making, especially on the NHS. Further confusion is sown by UKIP’s renewable supply of rogue candidates, whose outbursts make the party seem more extreme than it actually is.
To get to the essence of UKIP we should ignore its factions, policies and candidates and look at the people who vote for it. On a range of social attitudes, researchers find clear purple water between this group and other voters. However, finding a label to sum it all up isn’t easy; standard terms like ‘illiberal’, ‘libertarian’ or ‘populist’ don’t quite fit the parameters.
Consider the following article by Peter Kellner for Prospect, in which the YouGov founder looks at how liberal the British public are on various issues:
“…on immigration and cannabis, liberals are in a minority. Conservative voters have broadly the same attitudes to both issues: by 61-29 per cent they oppose the legalisation of cannabis; by 64-29 per cent they think immigration has been bad for Britain. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are slightly more liberal on cannabis, and significantly more liberal on immigration.
“So far, so expected. But many Ukip voters respond differently. By 91-7 per cent they dislike immigration, but as many as 38 per cent would like cannabis legalised.”
Compared to Conservative voters, UKIP supporters are more liberal on one issue, but less liberal on the other.
Kellner then looks at a number of issues that fall under the heading of ‘lifestyle regulation’ – such as smoking bans and restrictions on the advertising of junk food. Generally, he finds strong public support for the so-called nanny state, but not among UKIP supporters:
“Take smoking. The views of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters are almost identical, with big majorities backing the current laws. But as many as 48 per cent of Ukip voters think the law has gone too far, while 49 per cent disagree.”
Kellner sees this as evidence of the “anti-state, low-regulation instincts of many Ukip voters.” However, when it comes to immigration controls or planning restrictions on new housing development, UKIP voters are all in favour of state regulation.
What, then, is the common link? I would summarise it as follows: Hostility to changes encouraged by the action or deliberate inaction of the state. Viewed from this perspective, one can understand where UKIP voters are coming from.
Here are a group of people that have every reason to feel unloved by the political, cultural and economic elites, which is why the idea of change imposed from above seems so threatening.
To change something you love implies a desire to make it better; but changing something you don’t love usually means you want to get rid of it.