Defying Duopoly: The Rise Of The Insurgents

On the doorsteps of Essex and Glasgow, the reasons why voters are turning to UKIP and the SNP appear remarkably similar

Features Scotland UK Politics Westminster
Here comes everybody: Nigel Farage (left) and Alex Salmond are both contesting seats in Westminster at this general election (FARAGE: ©GARETH FULLER/PA WIRE; SALMOND: ©ANDREW MILLIGAN/PA WIRE)

One of just two men will be Prime Minister after May 7. In that sense this election is a two-horse race. In every other respect, Britain is in for a messy, multi-dimensional and unpredictable few weeks, after which the country might wake up on May 8 knowing little more than it knew the night before. The process by which Britain resolves the contest between the two candidates for the top job will, to a greater extent than in any election in living memory, be a local rather than national process. Of course, the fierce national debate (televised or not) between Labour and the Conservatives and their respective visions for the country rages on. But an unprecedented proportion of voters are listening to someone else: above all, UKIP and the Greens in England, and the SNP in Scotland. Both UKIP and the SNP have won considerable support by connecting people’s problems to membership of a union, the former a European one, the latter a British one. Can the insurgents live up to their own high expectations on polling day?

One person who hopes so is Tim Aker, UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, a constituency many expect him to win in May. It is a Friday afternoon and Aker is canvassing in Tilbury, one of the seat’s main towns. He is talking to an elderly dishevelled man at his doorstep. With his wild unkempt hair and grubby tracksuit, the voter is a living rebuttal to the erroneous caricature of a UKIP supporter Nigel Farage has described as “a retired half-colonel living on the edge of Salisbury Plain”. 

“I can remember when there were only five coloured people in Tilbury,” the voter tells Aker, holding up five fingers to make his point more forcefully. The candidate nods, expressing only the faintest signs of agreement with a man whose vote he tells me he can count on in May.

Aker is a 29-year-old Member of the European Parliament who—as he eager to tell everyone he meets—is a local boy, not “parachuted in” like his Conservative and Labour rivals. He is decked out in a grey-suit-and-wax-jacket combination that his party’s leader would be proud of and walks the streets of the constituency he hopes will elect him with the purpose of a politician who wants to meet everyone on the electoral register before polling day.

“I’m running a local campaign, listening to the concerns of residents.” These are platitudes uttered by every politician and Aker is no different in making such claims. Yet he appears to mean it. After a by-election last year, Aker sits on Thurrock council (putting him in the unusual situation of simultaneously representing the people of Averley and Uplands, and the entire East of England). With this position comes local clout to help residents who have had difficulties dealing with the council. This appears to be making him a popular man. One Tilbury resident thanks Aker for helping with the damp problem in his council house. A large number of doorstep conversations end with Aker taking down a voter’s email address and promising to fix a problem they have. He even cuts his canvassing short when a resident calls to say she has been evicted by the council. Aker had helped her friend and she wondered if he might be able to help her too. “Stay where you are, we’re coming now,” he tells her. When Aker tells voters “You’re my boss” he appears to mean it.

Just ten minutes before his conversation with the man concerned about the increase in Tilbury’s “coloured” population, Aker had been talking to a black man. He too assured Aker that, on May 7, he would be voting UKIP. “The people are no longer the government,” he tells the candidate. “Something has to change.” Aker agrees: “That’s why I’ll be holding regular public meetings—because you’re the ones in charge.”

This is the magic trick that UKIP manages to pull off, to the frustration of Labour and Conservative candidates fighting off purple insurgencies. For one voter, UKIP satisfies his less than politically correct desire to stop society looking so different to him. The other voter is not put off by his political bedfellow. For several years now, pundits have been insisting that the rise of UKIP will be stalled and reversed when the party comes under closer scrutiny. Yet whatever story about the party is thrown up—batty policy pledges from their 2010 manifesto, claims of financial impropriety, party activists who think gay people are to blame for bad weather or dislike “negroid features”, Nigel Farage’s one-time preference for a privatised health system—their supporters do not appear to waiver.

Such is the nature of a protest party. It can sweep up a broad range of discontents and collect them under a single, anti-establishment banner. After a day of critical press for UKIP, those who hate the party go to sleep hating it even more while its supporters wake up the next day even more convinced that the establishment is closing ranks and that UKIP must therefore be doing something right.

In the afternoon I spent canvassing with Aker and seven UKIP volunteers, those who said they’d be voting for, or considering voting for, the party told Aker and his team they would be doing so because “we want our country back”, because of the bedroom tax, because Aker had made sure the council dealt with the mould in their living room, because the rich keep getting richer, because of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, because of HSBC and bankers’ bonuses, and because “the BNP don’t get it any more”. One woman summed up her fellow constituents’ wide-ranging motives for voting purple when she simply said: “We don’t count.”

This is the cocktail of discontent—some national, some local; some palatable, some less so—that makes UKIP such a potent political force and means that Tim Aker stands a good chance of winning in May. One volunteer described the ward they canvassed while I was with them as “solidly Labour”, yet nearly everyone we spoke to told Aker they’d probably be voting for him.

Whenever Aker has had a conversation with a voter about an issue other than the European Union or immigration, he treads the path from front door to gate, where I have been standing listening to his doorstep pitch, with his arms out and eyebrows raised. On several occasions he says what his body language is trying to tell me: “See. Wasn’t that interesting?” Like the rest of his party, he is keen to be more to than just a Eurosceptic. He wants to be the voice of the forgotten.

When it comes to helping the disenfranchised and hard-up, Thurrock is a good place to start. In the government’s 2012 well-being survey, the constituency came bottom, meaning it is officially the most miserable part of the country. Michael Casey, editor of yourthurrock.com told the Mail that Thurrock is “a bit like the Bermuda Triangle. Is it Essex? No. It’s [under] a unitary authority. Is it London? Well, no, it’s on the border. That is maybe what is missing.” Outside Tilbury Town station, you do not have to look too hard to see signs that the full force of economic recovery has yet to reach Thurrock. There is a scruffy collection of shopfronts, many of which are boarded up, and George Osborne would have been alarmed by how many residents were at home to answer their door in the middle of a weekday afternoon. 

In 2010, the Conservatives beat Labour by just 92 votes (16,869 to 16,777), making Thurrock the fifth most marginal seat in Britain. UKIP won just 3,390 votes and came fifth, behind the Liberal Democrats and the British National Party. When Polly Billington, a BBC producer turned media adviser to Ed Miliband, was selected for the seat, she must have been counting on a place on the green benches of the House of Commons, with the tiniest of swings needed to do away with the Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price’s minuscule majority. But for UKIP, Billington is the dream rival candidate; she has a CV built for criticism from a party that never misses an opportunity to attack an out-of-touch elite. Those attacks appear to be working. Polling in the constituency commissioned by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft last summer put UKIP on 36 per cent while the Conservatives and Labour were on 28 and 30 per cent respectively. At the bookmakers, Aker is the odds-on favourite.

The party will probably win a handful of seats in May; half a dozen is the best guess of Matthew Goodwin, associate professor at the University of Nottingham and co-author, with Rob Ford, of Revolt on the Right (Routledge, £14.99), the definitive study of UKIP and the 2015 Paddy Power Political Book of the Year. Even in the tight outcome most predict, six seats buys you very little parliamentary clout; that number is lower than optimistic Ukippers would have been hoping for just after their victory in the European elections in spring 2014 or in the excitement of the defections last autumn. But had you spoken to UKIP supporters in 2010, when their share of the national vote was just 3.1 per cent, their jaws would have dropped at the suggestion that they would win six seats and more than ten per cent of the national vote.

But the damage done by UKIP at this election should not be measured only in parliamentary seats and vote share. Research by Rob Ford for the Observer recently put UKIP on track to come second in more than 100 seats. Such a result would hugely strengthen the party, enabling it to put down local roots and win local representation. Goodwin estimates that the party could come second in as many as 60 seats in the North of England, further evidence that UKIP is a threat to Labour as well as to the Conservatives.

The morning after Douglas Carswell’s by-election win in Clacton last October, Nigel Farage described the party he leads as “the most national of all political parties. We are the only party that can get big vote shares in Tory heartlands and in Labour heartlands. No other party crosses those boundaries—those old divides of Left and Right and the divides of class—and we cross all of these things.” This may be characteristically hyperbolic analysis, but after May 7 it will probably be closer to the truth. For some time now, the main parties have been retreating to their regional redoubts, taking their heartlands for granted while writing off their opponents’ safe seats. UKIP is free from the stigma suffered by the Conservatives in the North and by Labour in the South. With this headstart, the party plans to make further inroads in 2020.

Poor, urban, post-industrial and a long way north. If there is anywhere that the certainties of British politics should dictate that the Labour party could rely on support, it is Glasgow. But this red city looks likely to turn yellow in May. Constituency polling suggests that six of the seven Glasgow seats—all of which are currently Labour-held—will fall to the SNP. This is the epicentre of the nationalist earthquake that is shaking Scottish politics. Some predict that the SNP, which at present has just six MPs, will win as many as 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies. More conservative estimates still put the party on more than 40 seats.

While their “Yes” campaign was lauded for its optimistic and energising tone, the SNP’s general election message strikes a cynical, if clear, note. Unlike Labour politicians, Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and their colleagues need not worry about anyone other the Scots and the logic of the SNP sell reflects that fact: every extra SNP seat, they argue, is added leverage for Scotland. Turn the green commons benches tartan and we will extract as many concessions for Scotland as we can, one leaflet tells voters. Such a strategy could push a strained Union to breaking point—which, of course, is the party’s ultimate aim.

Natalie McGarry is the SNP candidate for Glasgow East, where she hopes to overturn an 11,840 majority and oust Labour’s Shadow Scotland Secretary Margaret Curran. I join her canvassing in Easterhouse, one of the most deprived places in Britain. Built in the 1950s as a new home for those in the city’s East End slums, the estate sits on a windswept hilltop just outside the city. Iain Duncan Smith visited in 2002 and the problems residents there faced moved him to set up the Centre for Social Justice and motivated his campaign against the welfare trap. Thirteen years on, Easterhouse still has its problems: one- third of working-age residents here are not in work.

At one door McGarry encounters a voter who says he’s not interested in politics and doesn’t vote. McGarry asks him whether he voted in the referendum. “Yes,” he says. Why? “Because it can’t get much worse, can it?” By the end of the conversation he tells McGarry he’ll probably vote for her in May.

“It can’t get much worse, can it?” sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing UKIP voters had said in Thurrock. But McGarry does not want to accept that there are similarities between the left-wing nationalist party she has supported all her adult life and Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptics. “UKIP, and I think the Tories do it as well, pit people against each other and make rivals of the poor. Instead of people blaming the bankers or the people at the very top of society that caused the economic crash, people at the bottom blame each other. UKIP encourages people to blame immigration. It’s all about finding somebody to blame.” Does the SNP not pit people, specifically Scots and the English, against one another too? McGarry’s response is a sentence that sounds like something the UKIP MP Douglas Carswell would say: “We want to empower people who live within a broken system.”

Across town, Tom Harris is stumped. “I don’t understand it,” he says as he walks the streets of Glasgow South (formerly Glasgow Cathcart), the constituency the Labour MP has represented since 2001. Harris, the shadow environment minister, is defending a lethargy-inducing majority of 12,658; he won more than half the votes last time. But a poll in the constituency commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in February put Harris 15 percentage points behind the SNP and on course to lose his seat.

“They lost!” says Harris, referring to last September’s independence referendum in which, despite momentarily leading in the polls, the SNP-led Yes vote lost by 44.7 per cent to 55.3. “Why are they now doing so well?” The problem for Harris is that the Yes campaign, and by extension the SNP, did not lose in Glasgow. In fact, 53.5 per cent of this supposedly staunchly Labour city voted to leave the United Kingdom.

This makes life difficult for a proudly unionist Labour MP. What adds to Harris’s frustration is what he describes as the “extraordinary situation” in which the SNP manage to win the anti-politics vote while being in government at Holyrood. “Journalists ask me all the time, what is happening in Scotland and why? And I can always answer the first question but I can never answer the second. I just have no idea of people’s motivations.”

Harris tells me that because of the surge, he is campaigning “at least twice as hard as he has before” to keep his seat. As in Thurrock, in Glasgow South it is local issues that appear to matter the most. The two most common complaints in a morning of canvassing with Tom Harris were private landlords not keeping their properties tidy and clean and the amount of dog mess on the pavement, an issue which, at one point, Harris literally takes into his own hands.

Harris thinks the parallels between UKIP and the SNP are obvious: “The anti-politics mood across all of the United Kingdom is, I think, why Labour is doing so badly in Scotland . . . I think a lot of people in the referendum didn’t give a toss about independence but they wanted to give the establishment a kicking. And they still want to. And they see the way of doing that as voting SNP.”

British politics has changed. In the 1955 general election, the high-water mark of the two-party system, 96 per cent of the votes cast went to either Labour or the Conservatives. Just one other party, Clement Davies’s Liberals, won more than one per cent of the national vote and there were only four parties—Sinn Fein being the other—in the House of Commons. By contrast, in 2010, Labour and the Conservatives won a combined share of the vote of just 65 per cent and today there are 12 parties represented in the Commons.

It is no coincidence that 1955 was the year the swingometer made its debut on the BBC’s election coverage. The two-party system meant that the ups and downs of the campaign, the mood of different corners of the country and the strengths or weaknesses of a party leader’s speech mattered only insofar as they affected one thing: the swing. But the TV graphic has become less useful with each election since its debut. In 2015, it is moribund. Election battles are now fought on too many fronts to be encapsulated in the shift of one arrow to the left or the right. Once May 7 and its choppy wake has passed, both Labour and the Conservatives, if they hope to ever form a majority government again, must ask themselves why large swathes of the electorate hate them so much and why parties they dismissed as amateurish flashes in the pan are suddenly doing so well.