UKIP’s vision for Britain’s future rests on an exit from the European Union. This vision is laid out in a section in their manifesto unambiguously entitled “Brexit”. UKIP states that a withdrawal from the EU means the UK can take back control of business and employment legislation and immigration rules, and sets out how the party would go about withdrawing the UK’s membership.
Two crucial aspects of this strategy are unclear. First, although everything in UKIP’s manifesto is based on a withdrawal from the EU, the manifesto calls for a referendum on the question of membership. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Without locating withdrawal within the context of some kind of public consultation, the party’s critique of the EU as undemocratic and bureaucratic could be seen as hypocritical.
Indeed, the party’s support is often seen as resting on a wider public disaffection with established politics, and a call to more direct forms of democracy. Tactically, UKIP cannot hope to take office, but must aim for a “kingmaker” role in a future coalition. By calling for a referendum, UKIP is forming a bridge to the Conservative manifesto.
Yet a referendum on EU membership has never been the party’s main aim, nor has it been the key focus of its support. Lord Ashcroft’s 2012 poll – which was the first major insight into UKIP support – showed that it rested on a more diffuse sense of unease and loss. But the most glaring inconsistency in the manifesto is the leap from referendum to withdrawal: UKIP takes an “out” vote for granted. Assuming that Britain would vote to leave the EU is a very risky strategy indeed.
Conservative eurosceptics had public opinion on their side in 2013, when they cornered their leader into agreeing to a timetable for referendum. But support for withdrawal has since dropped and continues to decrease despite (or perhaps because of) the greater visibility of the issue in public debate. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed a majority of 45% in favour of the status quo, and only 35% favouring withdrawal.
This is not to say that a referendum in 2017 would result in a rejection of the UKIP position. A lot can happen in the meantime to sway voters’ minds, and continued eurozone and immigration crises are likely to form part of that picture. But the gap between the party’s position on referendum and its wider exit stance is striking.
As has already been pointed out, the figures laid out in the UKIP manifesto do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny because they rest entirely on the counter-factual narrative of exit. The UKIP position is that, on top of the return to the UK of its EU budget contribution, wealth and jobs would flow from the ability to control the British economy.
This would presumably depend on an offshoring strategy aimed at exploiting a low-cost, low-tax economy attractive to inward investment (something between a Swiss and a Turkish model). Such a strategy has not been properly costed, and would have to take account of the complexity of investment decisions: cost and regulation matter to shareholders and shape location decisions, but so do other factors such as proximity to key markets and economic stability.
More generally, the impact of withdrawal on the British economy is unknown. As has been observed in the opposite position of support for membership, the cases for membership and for withdrawal both rest on counter-factual estimates of the consequences of British exit from the EU. EU supporters claim that up to three and a half a million British jobs depend on the European export market, based on a report by researchers at South Bank University for the European parliament.
UKIP disputes this claim, arguing instead that a shift to emerging markets could compensate for the jobs lost through EU withdrawal. This argument appears to be based on a more recent report by the “free market” think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, which acknowledges the high risks involved in such a shift. The UKIP manifesto works on similar assumptions, but does not specify an alternative strategy, and does not acknowledge the risk involved.
The roots of UKIP popularity are most obviously seen in a critique of mainstream politics, rather than a credible set of policies.
The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.