Electoral success and internal tensions: UKIP in the aftermath of the 2015 general election

Posted by ap507 at May 14, 2015 11:45 AM |
Dr Richard Whitaker discusses the UK Independence Party's position post-election and the difficulties the party now faces
Electoral success and internal tensions: UKIP in the aftermath of the 2015 general election

Source: Wikipedia; Nigel Farage MEP, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, speaking to members of the media

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The 2015 general election has in many ways been a success for UKIP but the internal tensions that have emerged since are indicative of the difficulties the party faces in moving from principally seeking a single policy aim (UK exit from the EU) to seeking votes and office.

UKIP have quadrupled their vote share from around 3% in the 2010 general election to over 12% in 2015, winning nearly four million votes. The party finished second in 120 constituencies compared to a single second place in 2010. At the 2015 local elections, UKIP took control of their first Council (Thanet) and made net gains of 176 councillors, adding to their base of local representation which had already increased considerably in the previous two years.

Clearly this is a very different set of results than those achieved by the party five years previously, with UKIP now the third placed UK party measured by vote share. Nevertheless, tensions have been apparent within the party since the election, this time with regard to leadership, financial resources and turning votes into seats.

UKIP were by far the biggest losers from the electoral system, managing only a single seat rather than the 80 or so MPs they would have be allocated under a purely proportional distribution. In his book The Purple Revolution, Farage claimed that ‘South Thanet will be a real test as to whether, in the last two years, we have managed to hone our message, and whether the programme of better targeting seats has worked’. In South Thanet the party appeared to have failed that test, leading to a series of events revealing intra-party disagreements.

Farage has been criticised in some quarters after he said he would resign the leadership only to have his resignation refused by UKIP’s National Executive Committee. His continuation at the helm may have been inspired by an election outcome which means an in-out referendum is now highly likely by 2017 at the latest. Hot on the heels of these events, has been an apparent disagreement over the use of Short Money – funding provided to opposition parties at Westminster – allocated to UKIP. There have since been public disagreements with the party’s head of press, Patrick O’Flynn MEP, openly criticising Farage and his aides in an interview with the Times.

Facing difficulties after electoral success is not new to UKIP. For instance, the arrival of well-known television presenter and former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk helped the party dramatically increase their vote share at the 2004 European elections. This was followed by Kilroy-Silk’s failed bid to lead the party causing him to quit UKIP only months later. After the 2009 European elections, Farage resigned as leader to be replaced by Lord Pearson whose decisions not to campaign against hard Eurosceptic candidates from other parties in some seats, led to intra-party tensions. These difficulties are indicative of the problems facing a party as it makes the move from simply seeking to promote a single policy aim to trying to win votes and office.

If they are to build on their increased vote share, UKIP must deal with several tensions.

First, they need to design a policy approach that allows them to win seats in 2020. Moving further away from their original ultra-Thatcherite and libertarian stance towards policies aimed at working class voters unhappy with immigration and disillusioned with the political system will surely see further internal disagreements even if much of the party is now behind this approach.

Second, they need to be sufficiently internally united and cooperative in order to work with hard Eurosceptics in other parties and pressure groups if they are to convince voters to choose Brexit in a forthcoming referendum.

Third, further professionalization of the party will be needed in its attempts to seek office as a pivotal party at Westminster. The ‘Godfrey gaffes’ of 2013 and recent public disagreements suggest there is still some way to go on this issue.

In any case, UKIP has shaken up the UK party system at least at the level of electoral if not legislative parties, but still has some distance to travel if it is to achieve the ultimate goal of office.

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