Explainer: UK Independence Party

Under leader Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) were the success story of the recent UK local council elections: but who exactly are they? EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

In the recent United Kingdom local council elections, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 147 seats, an increase of 139 seats, garnering more than one million votes (around 23%) across 35 local governments.

Many Australians will be struck by the similarities between UKIP’s success and that of One Nation in the 1998 Queensland state election, where the party won 23% of the vote and 11 seats.

And while One Nation petered away fairly quickly, some observers believe that John Howard’s coalition government shifted decisively to the right on key issues - notably immigration - in order to capture the One Nation vote.

With Howard’s former lieutenant Lynton Crosby now working for Conservative prime minister David Cameron (whose party has been leaking the most votes to UKIP) will the Tories also move to the right as Howard did? Or will they continue to focus on the middle ground, where elections are thought to be won?

History of UKIP

The UK Independence Party was founded in 1993 as a result of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union (replacing the European Community) and led to the introduction of Europe’s single currency, the euro.

UKIP sits on the right of the political spectrum and describes itself as a libertarian party. Within the European Union, UKIP is considered a Eurosceptic party (anti-further integration), and the party campaigns for UK withdrawal from the EU.

In 2006, while in opposition, prime minister David Cameron, described UKIP members as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

Prior to the local elections on May 2, UKIP’s greatest successes have been in elections to the European Parliament (EP). In the 2004 EP election, against all expectations, UKIP managed to win 12 seats, despite the UK’s total seat allocation falling from 87 to 78 as a result of the EU expanding to include ten new members states.

Likewise, in the 2009 EP election, UKIP won 13 of the 73 seats, and came second to the Conservatives in terms of votes won. Due to defections, UKIP now holds 11 seats in the EP, less than both Labour (13) and the Liberal Democrats (12).

The European Parliament is different to national parliaments in that each member state of the European Union elects members from their national political parties to sit in the EP, rather than from European-wide parties.

National parties generally belong to alliances that operate within the EP, which are known as party groups. For example, the UK Labour Party belongs to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Liberal Democrats sit within the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), while the Conservative Party left their uneasy alliance with the Christian Democratic European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) in 2009 and formed the European Conservatives and Reformist Group which is located further along the right than the now EPP, and tends to be somewhat Eurosceptic.

Within the EP, UKIP members sit within the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) party group. The group tends to attract parties of the far right, and includes Italian Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Lega Nord, the party that wishes to separate Northern Italy from the south of the country. The far-right Austrian Freedom Party attempted to join the EFD in 2011, but did not gain enough support within the party group for entry.

Make up of the 2009-14 European Parliament. European Parliament

UKIP is led by Nigel Farage, one of the original founders of the party. Farage has represented the group in the EP since 1999, when the UK changed its electoral system for Europe from first-past-the-post single member districts to multi-member districts elected via proportional representation.

Like many in UKIP, Farage was a disaffected member of the Conservative Party, disillusioned with the party’s support for increased integration into Europe. Farage, who attended Dulwich College (one of the Eton group of independent schools), and went to work as a commodities trader straight after school, is a confident speaker who likes a joke and appears to be resonating with the British electorate.

Currently, UKIP does not hold any seats in the House of Commons, but it does have three members in the House of Lords, all of whom defected from the Conservative Party.

How did UKIP win so many seats in the local elections?

UKIP campaigned on a platform of “common sense policies”, including lower taxes, a crackdown on crime and anti-social behaviour, protecting the green belt from wind farms and a high speed rail network, and most controversially, “controlling immigration”.

Not all local councils held elections on May 2. The elections held were actually a subset of councils, predominately those in non-metropolitan areas. London and Metropolitan councils elections will be held in 2014.

As is the case in general elections, the UK’s local government elections run on a first-past-the-post system. Fundamentally, whoever gets the most votes wins the seat, regardless of the percentage of votes they win.

If last year’s referendum for UK to adopt a preferential alternative vote system - like the system we use in Australia for the House of Representatives - had passed, it is unlikely that UKIP would have won as many seats, as we would expect that the three major parties would have preferenced against them.

Both local government and European Parliament elections have long been classified as “second order” elections, where, due to the fact that government isn’t formed as a result of the election, voters can use the poll as an opportunity to send a message of support or dissatisfaction with the government, or the party they generally support.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s results, commentators and politicians have described UKIP’s success as a protest vote against both the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government and the Labour opposition.

What does the future hold for UKIP?

While the buzz around UKIP is currently about its chances of sending members to Westminster in 2015, the party faces a number of challenges, including the fact that it has 139 new local councillors - many with no political experience - that it must keep in line.

We should expect that the pressure from the press, as well as attacks from all three major parties will keep UKIP under the microscope.

Like One Nation in Australia, UKIP’s support is far stronger in non-urban areas, which will make winning a substantial number of seats at the general election difficult.

That said, perhaps the party may already be on its way to its greatest success, with David Cameron apparently agreeing to back a private member’s bill for a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the EU.