How significant is UKIP’s Clacton success?

(Originally published on The Evans Review 25/10/14)

On the 9th of October, UKIP won its first seat in the House of Commons as Douglas Carswell swept to victory in the Clacton by-election. Like it or lump it, this changes everything and the Westminster establishment must wake up to the very real threat posed by Nigel Farage’s leadership.

UKIP-logoOne seat in parliament may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things but it matters a great deal to UKIP. They now have the chance to quiz David Cameron in the weekly Prime Minister’s questions, instigate debates and table amendments in parliament. The party will also get access to state funding. MPs are paid by the state to run offices and staff while political parties with a proven electoral record are due more funds than those without. Carswell’s victory in Clacton is therefore a political and financial coup for UKIP.

Electoral success has given UKIP a platform within the inner sanctums of British politics. It has provided an opportunity to challenge the three main parties and accrue some much-needed funds. Perhaps more importantly, the party has moved into the political mainstream. The idea that a UKIP vote is a wasted protest vote has been one of the biggest challenges to the success of the party. David Cameron’s jibe that Tory voters tempted to vote UKIP might risk ‘going to bed with Nigel Farage and waking up with Ed Miliband’ is certainly punchy. It could still prove to be savvy electioneering on the part of the Prime Minister but Farage now has a concrete example of a constituency where the party’s voters have got what they voted for.

UKIP+Leader+Nigel+Farage+Visits+Eastleigh+G7p9oGmdg2TlNigel Farage has even been invited to take part in a TV debate alongside the three main party leaders ahead of next year’s general election. Amid criticism of the proposals from The Green Party, broadcasters explained that UKIP’s inclusion was due to ‘changes in the political landscape’ since the last televised debates. This is a fair point but the omission of The Green Party does seem unfair considering they have occupied a seat in Westminster for over four years rather than just a few weeks. This level of inconsistency is, unfortunately, something to be expected in the modern political climate but UKIP’s inclusion does highlight how much ground has been gained. Farage has rattled the right cages at the right time.

A lot of UKIP’s success recently has come as a result of its alternative image. Nigel Farage has very deliberately portrayed himself as a Westminster outsider, brilliantly playing on the public disillusionment towards the three main parties. With electoral success this position immediately becomes harder to maintain. Every step UKIP takes towards the political mainstream is a step away from its status as the insurgent outsider. Additionally, UKIP is now big enough to become divided. The potential for disagreement over policy between Douglas Carswell as a local MP and his nationally minded party is huge and could undermine the leadership.

Nevertheless, the Clacton result is immensely significant. It is an opportunity for the party to portray itself as a legitimate alternative to the mainstream, not a protest vote but a genuine contender in the struggle for political power. The result is also a continuation of the momentum gained after their European election successes earlier in the year. With the Rochester and Strood by-election looming and another Tory defector, Mark Reckless, standing for UKIP, the party could have two MPs before next year’s election. Political momentum is hugely important at this stage in the electoral cycle and no-one can deny that, right now, UKIP has it.

Are we ever going to see the reform that British Politics so desperately needs?

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s component of the 2014 European Parliament Election is scheduled to be held, coinciding with the Local Elections in England and Northern Ireland. In anticipation, the media has paid significant attention to the potential success of UKIP as the issue of EU membership once again dominates the political landscape. It seems that the mercurial rise of Nigel Farage as UKIP’s bullish leader will effectively polarize the British electorate. However, as interesting as it would be to discuss the rise of UKIP as the new major player in British politics, this piece attempts to shine a light on some of the wider issues within the British political system. The most significant problem we have today is the feeling of disillusionment felt towards the political establishment by a vast quantity of the electorate. Indeed, for me, a major factor behind UKIP’s recent success can be explained by the ability of Farage to tap into popular frustration with the political elite.

Having addressed the fact that we, as the British public, feel disillusioned with our politicians, it is now important to attempt to explain why. It almost seems too easy to say that our politicians are out of touch but on wider consideration, it is an unavoidable fact. The established system in Britain seems to be an immovable object. The House of Lords, for example, as Britain’s second chamber, has the power to make or block laws and challenge the actions of the Government. Yet, none of its members are elected! Lords are appointed and can even occupy positions in the Cabinet but are in no way answerable to the British electorate. This system has been in operation for centuries but the fact that it remains to exist in 2014 is frankly staggering. The Lords is in dire need of reform but the issue is often sidelined to maintain the status quo. For me, this puts into perspective just how much of a farce the 2011 Referendum on the Alternative Vote was. Why bother attempting to make the already democratic House of Commons more representative of the electorate when we have a second chamber entirely comprised of unelected peers? The AV referendum was simply a token gesture attempting to display a Government intent on reform. Yet, in reality, it was widely expected to fail and has been used since as a way of falsely suggesting that the British public is happy with the current state of affairs. We are not.

Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that our politicians are out of touch but it certainly would not be unfair to suggest that they have their priorities wrong. Modern politicians are obsessed with “the grey vote”. Just to make this point clear, there is nothing wrong with the Government providing for the elderly and I am not by any means suggesting otherwise. The problem arises when we consider why the Government are so keen to do so. It is actually very simple; the older you are, the more likely you are to vote. As an MP, it would make perfect sense to try to appeal to “the grey vote” because it would greatly increase your chances of re-election. When the Coalition was faced with the difficult decision of where to cut the national budget, cutting pensions was completely out of the question. Controversial as it was, increasing tuition fees was a far more viable option despite the fact that tuition accounts for a far smaller part of the budget. The Government was prepared to bite the bullet and take the criticism for raising tuition fees because the implications of losing popularity amongst young people would possibly not cost them re-election. Had the Government cut funding to the elderly, the chances of re-election would be very slim indeed. This may come across as cynical but it really is that simple. The obsession with re-election distorts everything. For example, HS2 has been billed as a great project set to modernize Britain. It has been used by several politicians as a way of displaying what an apparently magnificent job they are doing. However, the plans have seemingly been blocked at every corner through a combination of incompetence and nimbyism. Meanwhile, Britain’s existing railway system is on the brink of over-capacity and has been described as being decades behind Western Europe. Services in the North of England in particular are in dire need of investment. The priorities are all wrong, politicians do whatever necessary to gain re-election and nothing else matters.

When George Osborne read out his budget earlier this year he declared that it was a “budget for savers” while offering a package of help for pensioners. Upon hearing this, I was struck immediately by a sense of being ignored as a member of this society. Indeed, I find myself thoroughly uninspired by any of the major parties and sadly do not get the impression that this feeling is unique. This sentiment must surely be a major factor behind UKIP’s recent rise; the British public are fed up with the established political parties and have turned to a party on the fringe to express their frustration. This widely held sense of disillusionment is worrying. However, although we have recognized a significant problem here, it is a different question entirely to suggest what can be done about it. In fairness to politicians it is the system that is flawed; they simply operate within that system. Possible solutions I would suggest would be to reform the House of Lords into an elected second chamber and limit Members of Parliament to serving only one term. However, if it is the system that is flawed and politicians gain power and thrive within that system, are we really to expect Parliament to sign its own death warrant?