Could UKIP really become “the most national party”?
Writing in the Times (£), Rachel Sylvester has offered an interesting thought in the aftermath of last week’s elections:
Indeed, as Ed Miliband struggles to appeal in the south and David Cameron fails to make inroads in the north, Ukip can now claim to be in some ways the most national party, with support in Scotland and Wales as well as across England — although not in London, a pretty big omission.
The same thought occurred to me, as I watched the European election results roll in on Sunday night and saw UKIP’s David Coburn box the SNP out of a third seat and win a foothold in Scotland. Prior to that, the party fell just 0.7 per cent short of topping the poll in Wales – a feat which was historic enough when the Conservatives managed it in 2009. Prior to that, in the local elections counted on Thursday, UKIP won two new councillors in Northern Ireland – more than either the Conservatives or new arrivals NI21 managed – and UKIP NI then went on to poll almost 25,000 votes for their European candidate, Henry Reilly.
UKIP’s rhetoric and material also carries strong Unionist themes. Indeed, in Northern Ireland the party has somehow fused a very traditional unionist message – building vote-transfer relations with the Traditional Unionist Voice and the Progressive Unionist Party, and encouraging their voters to vote for every unionist party using STV – with the Conservative idea of emphasising the value of being a pan-British, nationally relevant party of the Union, as demonstrated on these flyers. And what did Nigel Farage focus on when he spoke after his own result, the eyes of the nation on him? His party’s great results in Scotland and Wales, and how they truly were a UK independence party.
All this is despite the fact that, in the eyes of many commentators, UKIP is a very English phenomenon. It has been described variously as being, or having the potential to be, the English SNP. Polling shows a strong correlation between identifying as English (rather than British) and likelihood to support UKIP. Indeed the English Democrats’ European election tagline – “I’m ENGLISH, not BRITISH and not EUROPEAN” – put me in mind of some pro-UKIP commenters I have encountered in the course of my writings on the Union.
Yet despite this, UKIP really does have a chance of becoming the since the early Twentieth Century to have proper political representation in all four home nations, and the first since devolution to be represented in all three devolved chambers.
It performed very well in Wales and on present polling would win up to eight seats in the Welsh Assembly. It already has a Northern Irish MLA in the form of David McNarry who will benefit from incumbency should he attempt to hold his seat for the party in 2016. And whilst I don’t know what sort of condition UKIP’s Scottish machine is in, is it impossible to imagine the party winning one or two MSPs from the regional lists now that the “no UKIP in Scotland” taboo has broken?
CCHQ must diagnose, and cure, whatever ails the NI Conservatives
We are only other party even trying to properly represent all four corners of the United Kingdom, and UKIP’s success serves to throw the woeful under-performance of the Northern Irish Conservatives into even starker relief.
On an otherwise pretty good night for the Tories, particularly in Scotland (as Ruth Davidson explains on this website today), the NI Conservatives suffered the ignominy of polling one sixth of UKIP’s vote in the European election and failing to win a single council seat. UKIP won three council seats. Even NI21, an imploding party with a list of problems as long as your arm, managed to win a councillor.
Surely the task before them – to make even the smallest amount of progress in the elected politics of the province – is not an impossible one? Indeed we know it is not, for UKIP saw their first elected representatives on Thursday. So where have the NI Conservatives gone wrong?
From conversations with local members over the last couple of years, it sounds as if the party was fixated for too long on the prospect of Basil McCrea and John McCallister – two liberal Ulster Unionists who went on to found NI21 – defecting to the party. Instead of patiently building up a campaigning machine, identifying and selecting candidates for key wards in plenty of time, the party simply waited for some established personalities to lift them into relevance. When this didn’t happen, there was no Plan B. The result was a total provincial vote of just over four thousand. Something has to change. Suggestions from local members include the creation of a member-elected party leader and much, much earlier selection of candidates. But whatever happens next, CCHQ should take a close interest.
In the past year UKIP have demonstrated that a mainland party can win elections in Ulster, whilst in his post mortem of NI21 for Open Unionism this morning Dr Colin Reid argues that there is still a market for a modern, non-sectarian party of the Union that seeks a united Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom. The territory is there for the taking, and if UKIP do beat us to our aspiration to represent every part of this country, that will be entirely our fault.