By Mark Wallace
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This week, ConservativeHome's "Getting to Know U-KIP" series explores the reality of the party hitting the headlines – who they are, how they work and what they believe. Today's piece is an introduction to UKIPpers, and asks what motivates them, why they do what they do, and what implications that has for British – and particularly Conservative – politics.
In June 2004, buoyed by the high profile declaration of support by Robert Kilroy-Silk, UKIP reached 26,000 members. It was a heady moment for the party – and one that would not last. Within months, the tangerine TV man had stormed out and the new recruits were melting away.
Last Tuesday, UKIP broke that 26,000 record for the first time. They are booming at grassroots level, as well as in the polls. They now have two targets – to reach 30,000 members by the time their party conference begins in September, and to hang onto the new recruits this time.
But who are the UKIPpers? We know what senior Conservatives think of them – from Michael Howard's "cranks and gadflies" and David Cameron's infamous "fruitcakes and closet racists" to Ken Clarke's disastrous "clowns" comment on the eve of the local elections. And yet despite the abuse, they are still on the march – for clowns they are very serious, and they have proved unusually long lived for supposed gadflies.
Understanding them matters – without an insight into their motivations, their history and their views then Conservatives have no way to come up with an informed response. Whether you want to defeat UKIP, ally with them or bring them into the Tory fold, you stand no chance of success if you don't know them.
At a simplistic socio-economic level, UKIP's existing voters tend to be working class – though the "considerers" tempted to support them are more evenly spread across society. The party itself certainly emphasises a recent inflow of members from the Mittlestand – people running small businesses who were once the backbone of local Conservative Associations.
More than Tories-in-exile
The political assumption has long been that all UKIPpers are disaffected Tories, but this is a flawed generalisation. Lord Ashcroft's polling [PDF] found that UKIP voters in 2010 were as likely to identify with Labour as they were with the Conservatives. Tories are the largest party group among those considering supporting UKIP at 31%, but they are outnumbered by the 33% who feel no affinity to any party at all – and Labour supporters make up 21% of the total.
This is compounded by a fascinating analysis of local election data by Survation which shows that the composition of UKIP's voter base is not static, but changes as their level of support rises.
Up to 16% in the polls, the bulk of their new votes come from Conservatives – but past that point, the majority of their new switchers come from Labour. As the only party to secure over 20% in both South Shields and Eastleigh, it is clear their performance is more complex than simply capturing outrage in Tunbridge Wells (though they perform well there, too).
This question of where UKIP's voters are coming from has important connotations for any politician communicating with them. Language focused on how the Conservatives can "win them back" or "bring them home" is singularly ineffective.
For a start, it's patronising. If you've joined an insurgent movement against an arrogant, presumptive political class, you are unlikely to appreciate being spoken to as if you are their property or a wayward child who needs to brought "home".
It's also founded on untrue assumptions – the evidence suggests that slightly more new UKIPpers come from a position of supporting no party at all than from the blue corner, and a sizeable minority have abandoned Labour. Attempts to bring them "home" to the Conservative party would feel more like kidnapping than the reuniting of an estranged family.
Such approaches are also based on the fallacy that Farage's supporters can be easily detached from their straight-talking tribe. The nature and depth of UKIPpers' attachment to their party creates a far stronger bond than that of the Referendum Party in 1997, for example.
The Referendum campaigners wanted one, simple thing. When they successfully persuaded the main parties to do what they wanted, they disbanded. Contrary to common Westminster thinking, UKIP are a different beast.
Pledging to leave the EU or promising a referendum on our membership is not enough to make them disappear or defect.
Building an identity
In part that's because they don't trust the promises of the political establishment, understandably. But it's also because, as one insider told me “we’re more than [anti-EU] now, it’s just the beginning.” Issues like immigration or same sex marriage feature prominently, but there’s also a broader process at work. Some people are not just voting UKIP, but adding it to their definition of themselves, in the way that people used to say, “I’m a Tory” or “We’ve always been a Labour family”.
Polling shows that the importance of immigration and the EU is increasingly matched by a strong feeling among UKIPpers that the party speaks for people like them. Time and again, they mention their belief in the party’s full platform – not just the issue that gave birth to it.
Their history has bound the longest-serving activists tightly together. The party has been going for two decades, and many of the core movers and shakers have worked together for years. Friendships (and rivalries) have developed, social circles have merged with their political circles and a movement has begun to grow around the brand and its ideas.
Their activists, and to a lesser extent many of their voters, have a deeper psychological bond than most, too. The view of an experienced campaigner who has been a member since before the General Election is typical: “I have a feeling of belonging which is greater than [when I was in] the Tory party.”
Those who go through tough experiences together develop close bonds of loyalty and a strong commitment to the cause they suffered for. Blood, sweat and tears are the cement that builds communities – from nations and armies to political parties. That hazing process has happened to many UKIP members, and the party as a whole exhibits the effects of having been through the mill and survived.
In the British political system, choosing to vote for a new party, to tell your friends about your decision and then to join it and publicly campaign on its behalf are big steps. They’re also risky steps, when suspicion of small parties is widespread, the mainstream media repeatedly claims euroscepticism and other UKIP themes are signs of xenophobia or even racism, and the established parties openly suggest there is the taint of extremism hanging about purple and yellow rosettes.
Various members I questioned in the course of researching this series reported “sneering” from members of the parties they had previously supported, or fears about the potential impact on their careers of reports comparing them to the BNP. “[Being in UKIP] wasn’t something you advertised, in the early years”, one told me.
When all that and more was thrown at them, it is understandable why they are a dedicated bunch – with a wry sense of humour about the insults they attract. Michael Howard’s “gadflies” comments generated a range of merchandise featuring the eponymous insect, David Cameron helped to ensure fruitcakes are a regular theme in UKIP conference speeches and Ken Clarke single-handedly made “Bring on the clowns” a rallying cry in the recent local elections.
A fatal misunderstanding
It is ironic that the efforts of the political establishment to prevent UKIP emerging that have helped to strengthen it. Combine the fellow-feeling those attacks inspired with the deep-seated hatred some of the ex-Tories in their ranks feel for their former party, and you have a potent mix.
The failure of the main three parties to understand who UKIPpers are has undoubtedly contributed to Nigel Farage’s success. Those who thought them to be a protest vote to be won over with one simple pledge, a bunch of “fruitcakes and closet racists” whose xenophobic views should be ignored or a lost tribe of conservatives who should return to the fold, were all mistaken.
The truth is less comfortable and less reassuring for the established parties, but we must accept it.
UKIP is now a political movement in its own right. Its supporters are adding the logo to their personal account of themselves, and are bound together by a shared experience of attacks from other parties and the media. They are not simply Tories in exile, waiting to be wooed to return to their natural home – some because they are angry ex-Conservatives, but many because they have never voted Tory in their lives.
Last week, Eric Pickles warned that “there is no silver bullet” for dealing with UKIP. He is right – once a party has taken root in people’s lives, their identities and their hearts then no-one can snap their fingers and make it go away overnight.
A radically different approach is needed, targeting more than shifts in the polls on the day after a policy announcement. If UKIP supporters are to be won over by the Conservative Party – note, that's won over, not “won back” – then it will be by long, dogged demonstration. Promises of doing things they might like, or declarations that we are on “on their side” are not enough. Only proving ourselves through action, over the course of years, will deliver any sizeable, permanent results. Even then, they may be here to stay.
Tomorrow, in the second “Getting to Know U-KIP” feature, Mark explores how the party campaigns.