There is less than a week left of the general election, and its narratives appear to have locked in: Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck with lacklustre campaigns, Sturgeon as the electrifying third force. There’s more than a whiff of 2010 to that summary.
One by one, the events that partisans – especially on the Tory side – had predicted would provide the ‘game changer’ have come and gone with no appreciable shift in advantage.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that election night will surprise us in the poll-jaded punditry. The election is going to come down to seat-by-seat street-fighting, and a few hundred votes in a few dozen seats could transform the shape of the outcome. There also remains a large pool of floating voters who will, if they vote, have to go somewhere.
With those caveats said, however, it seems fair to say that this has been a disappointing campaign for the UK Independence Party.
Which is not to say that, taking the long view, it has been a bad campaign. If one takes a broader perspective on the party’s electoral history then an election campaign where everybody expects it to garner a handful of MPs and a respectable share of the national vote is nothing to be ashamed of.
I personally stood to lose £20 in a four-year-old bet that there would be no UKIP MPs at the start of the 2015 Parliament, before my over-confident counterpart went double or quits on the party getting Cabinet ministers.
That overconfidence is at the nub of the problem, because after what looked like a real breakthrough year in 2014 the People’s Army (and substantial sections of the media) were preparing themselves for a truly stellar result.
Ten seats? More? Substantial breakthroughs in Labour’s one-party gerontocracy’s in the North of England and Wales? Perhaps enough of a purple wedge to play kingmakers in a hung parliament. Why not? They had a charismatic leader, an increasingly professional machine, and the boon of official ‘major party’ status from Ofcom.
Unfortunately, it looks as if the purple wave may have crested too soon. Despite their best efforts, UKIP have been rather squeezed out of this election campaign. It is worth examining why this is.
First, and most obviously, Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalists have emphatically stolen the party’s critical mantle as the exciting/dangerous insurgency. The SNP look set to take up to fifty or more seats next week, eclipsing the Liberal Democrats as Westminster’s third force.
It was Sturgeon, not Farage, who was the outsider to ‘break out’ during the television debates. Charismatic, telegenic, she appeals to her own rebellious constituency (to the liberal-left of Labour) and, critically, was newer. The country, and especially the media, are quite used to Farage by now.
Even beyond the election, the media boost the party hopes for from gaining Westminster representation will probably be heavily diluted by the spectacle of Alex Salmond’s cirque du séparatistes.
Second, immigration has played a remarkably small role in this election campaign. Labour made it one of their five blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pledges (“It’s on the mug”), but it hasn’t been a major part of either party’s messaging.
This side-lining of one of the issues that most fires up UKIP’s target voters has further denied the party space in the air war.
It will also harm the party’s efforts to cut through with disaffected Labour voters, described by expert UKIP-watchers as the party’s main long-term goal in this race. Immigration is the issue that has allowed a right-wing, small-state Thatcherite like Farage to connect with these voters.
Taken together with rumours of back-door negotiations with the Conservatives, and Farage’s ruling out cooperation with Labour in the challengers’ debate, UKIP risk looking like the sort of Tory adjunct they have spent the best part of two years successfully convincing people they’re not.
If the party substantially underperforms in Labour-held targets like Grimsby and Heywood & Middleton, it will suggest that a lot of critical work has been somehow unwound.
Finally, Farage has not personally had a good campaign. It is perfectly possible that his button-pushing debate performance has reached the voters he needed to reach, but it cannot but hurt the party to have their star player reduced to griping about the BBC and locked in a fight to the wire for South Thanet.
Again, none of this is to say that UKIP may not achieve what is, on its own terms, a perfectly good result: a healthy handful of MPs, led by an effective and outspoken leader, and a healthy share of the national vote as a basis for future success.
But in light of how high expectations had risen it seems likely, as we’ve suggested previously, that come May 8 the People’s Army will have some hard questions for their campaign’s commanders.