Life In The Left Behind Party

How UKIP metamorphosed from ex-Tory Eurobores to a political force appealing to all manner of malcontents

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Nigel Farage with UKIP’s election pledge card: They nearly left out the first item (©Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images)

Shortly before the general election last May, UKIP gathered reporters in Westminster’s Smith Square. Nigel Farage was there to launch the party’s short campaign — the final straight of British electoral politics — by unveiling a pledge card, featuring five core promises that would define the party’s pitch to the electorate.

Settling on these policies had involved much behind-the-scenes wrangling. Should they mention the NHS? Was foreign aid a prominent enough issue to include? The various questions were answered and everyone was happy for the cards to be printed — until, at the last minute, it was pointed out by one member of the UKIP team that they had omitted the party’s founding policy and historic raison d’être: to leave the European Union. The mistake was quietly fixed and “Say NO to the EU” would appear at the top of the list of promises.

The near-miss was a revealing blunder that demonstrated the metamorphosis of UKIP from a band of ex-Tory Eurobores — focused on Britain’s relationship with Brussels to the exclusion of all else, including electoral success — to a political force that sweeps up a much wider range of discontents from a much wider range of people.

Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo, both political scientists at the University of Nottingham, have captured that transformation definitively in UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics. This is the second book in as many years that Goodwin has co-authored on the party. The first, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge), written with Robert Ford, was an admirably cool-headed look at the rise of UKIP. It won praise for its thesis — at the time seen as rather outlandish but largely borne out in subsequent events — that UKIP was as much of a threat to the Labour party as it was to the Conservatives. Goodwin and Ford produced a list of the demographically most UKIP-friendly constituencies in the country; nine of the top ten were Labour-held.

With Milazzo, Goodwin has taken this analysis of who votes UKIP deeper, and updated the story to include the turbulent 18 months that took the party from finishing first in the European elections in 2014 to the general election of the following year, its aftermath — including Nigel Farage’s fantastically supple un-resignation — and the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Some UKIP voters certainly fit David Cameron’s 2006 characterisation of the party as “fruitcakes, loons and closet racists”. Uncomfortable though it may be for the party leadership, it is undeniably the case that UKIP’s rise has been aided by a collapse of racist far-Right parties like the BNP. But whatever one thinks of UKIP’s platform, it is simply inaccurate to caricature the party as National Front-lite. The authors of this study rightly identify UKIP’s core vote as “left-behind Britain”. It is overwhelmingly white, poor and old. Their supporters are victims of globalisation, struggling to find their place in post-industrial Britain and alienated by large-scale immigration.

According to Goodwin and Milazzo, such voters no longer feel at home in the two main parties because demographic change means it is middle-class rather than working-class voters who decide elections today. As a result, a socially conservative strain of working-class politics no longer finds sufficient expression in mainstream politics.

The authors’ account of the election risks giving political science a good name. It is better sourced than any journalistic version of the same events I have read and has a commitment to narrative rare in academic writing. The story of UKIP’s general election is one of a failure to manage expectations. Goodwin and Milazzo describe one regional organiser, a few months before the general election, telling a meeting of volunteers that if they won fewer than 50 seats, it would be a “major failure” and “people would need to be fired”. While the leadership knew 50 seats was entirely unrealistic, they did hold out hope for more than a dozen seats and considered a handful to be in the bag.

These high expectations, then, meant that election night was a disappointing one for the party. It emerged with just one MP, Douglas Carswell. The party’s second defector from the Conservatives, Mark Reckless, lost his seat of Rochester and Strood, while Nigel Farage failed to win a place in the House of Commons. But when the post-election dust settled, disappointment in the party was tempered by the fact it had won just under 4 million votes, a result that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.

Goodwin and Milazzo have an eye for the telling detail. Take, for instance, the day after the Clacton by-election, in which Douglas Carswell became the first UKIP politician to win an election to the House of Commons. Goodwin and Milazzo pick out an indication of the ructions that were to come between the leader and his new MP. Farage gathered the party’s top brass to celebrate with a “PFL” — Proper Fucking Lunch — at one of his favourite Mayfair restaurants. The PFL became a PFD at the Goring Hotel. Carswell himself, however, was absent, busy planning his re-election campaign: FU, Farage, as it were.

There is also plenty here for the anoraks, including details of the campaigning methods used by UKIP activists, right down to the inadequate way in which they categorised canvass returns.

Not many will agree with me but reading UKIP, I was struck by how well David Cameron has handled the party’s rise. While his modernising agenda and toffish air initially made him an easy target for Farage, the Prime Minister has made meaningful concessions to Euroscepticism — not least the promise of a referendum — while developing a blue-collar Conservatism that binds a broad coalition of voters together around ideas of fairness, just desserts, hard work and fiscal responsibility.

For now, insurgent parties — the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in England — are able to be all things to all people. Farage can get away with admonishing the Labour party for betraying the working class in England while saying of Cameron, “He’s not a Tory. He’s a socialist. Tory voters feel much closer to me than to their own leader. His priorities are gay marriage, foreign aid and wind farms. They’re not mine.” How long he (and his Scottish counterparts) can pull off that sleight of hand is a crucial question for the future ofBritish politics.

Goodwin and Milazzo finish their account with some speculation on what the imminent referendum campaign means for UKIP. They point out that Farage finds himself in a tragi-comic bind at the moment. Before the end of 2017, Britain will decide whether or not it wants to remain in the European Union. Those who want a say on EU membership have Farage to thank for that referendum. But Farage is an undeniably devisive figure and if he makes the case for withdrawal too loudly, he may be the reason for his side’s defeat.