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EU election: is UKIP a political earthquake or just a tremor?

Always the bridesmaid. Until now? John Stillwell/PA

Based on growing polling evidence, it is highly likely that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will top the national poll in the European elections. Even though historically UKIP has over-performed in European elections, coming second in 2009, this would be a remarkable achievement for a party which at the previous general election secured only 3.1% of the vote.

And a political earthquake it might just be. Last-minute polling indicates that UKIP could be poised to humiliate the major parties. According to YouGov, Labour are only just tied with UKIP at 27%, the Tories are limping into third at 23%, and the Lib Dems are jostling for fourth place with the Greens at around 10%.

Growing disillusionment with the main parties, whom UKIP dismisses as “out-of-touch elites”, undoubtedly explains some of the insurgent party’s apparent surge. But a much bigger factor has been the UKIP’s ability to tap into public concerns over immigration. Largely free from the stigma associated with far-right parties such as the BNP, UKIP has been able to broaden its appeal to those voters “left behind” and alarmed by the extent of social and economic change while retaining their mainstream political legitimacy on the European issue.

For the first time, UKIP has been able to link concerns about European immigration with voters’ latent uneasiness about EU membership. And as other competitors on the right of the spectrum have left the field, UKIP has seized on its electoral opportunity.

Strange bedfellows

But UKIP’s growth is built on an uneasy coalition. Its core support comes from a mix of financially insecure working-class men, who were traditionally loyal to Labour but who feel they have been “left behind” in modern Britain as mainstream parties chased the middle-class vote, and strategic Conservative sympathisers, who are keen to express hostility to the European Union but much less loyal to UKIP in general elections.

And unlike previous European elections, there is growing evidence of loyalty with almost 60% of mainly this “new electorate” pledging support for the party in next year’s general election.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that such a “political earthquake” might not permanently alter the foundations of the British party system to the extent some are suggesting. It remains to be seen how UKIP will fare in a general election campaign, which will bring much closer political, press and public attention to their broader policy platform.

UKIP’s more economically libertarian leanings, for instance, will be reflected in its 2015 manifesto and campaign – and if so, how they will play out among the traditional ex-Labour supporters it now relies on. Getting the balance right to ensure this uneasy coalition of voters remains intact will not be a simple task.

And while Farage has almost single-handedly carried the party from the electoral wilderness to the verge of unprecedented electoral success, this in itself could pose problems. Among the electorate, UKIP is Nigel Farage. Little is known about the other party beasts. So far Farage has batted away controversy over the party’s advertising and dealt swiftly with UKIP affiliates who have been exposed for posting inflammatory and derogatory remarks on social media. But he has taken some personal blows – to say nothing of eggs – particularly over expenses, that may over the long-term tarnish his anti-establishment message and reduce his appeal to UKIP’s “new electorate”.

Data and graphic courtesy of YouGov.

Growing pains

Looming larger still is the problem of how UKIP will adapt to the rigours of campaigning for individual seats. After all, seats are what count in general elections, not national vote share – and this is UKIP’s main challenge. Generally speaking, the party’s vote is fairly dispersed; it does not yet have the local infrastructure, targeting experience and tactical nous to mount successful constituency campaigns.

Because of the party’s limited organisation, it simply does not know enough about who and where its voters are. This means it has no way to convert sympathisers or potential voters, sustain this support in the face of opposition activism, and then mobilise it in sufficient numbers to closely challenge mainstream incumbents. It’s therefore very possible that UKIP could poll more votes than the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 election but win no seats, with the beleagured Lib Dems retaining more than half of their current incumbents.

There are signs that UKIP is aware of this problem. It has selected in excess of 2,600 candidates for the 2014 local elections, three times as many as it fielded in 2010, with its strongest growth in the traditional Labour strongholds. Local success is more crucial for UKIP’s longevity than the battle for who tops the poll in the European election; real credibility and political presence will only be earned by winning seats, not just coming a close second across the country.

The wind is in UKIP’s favour. The boost of the European election and mainstream parties’ difficulty motivating their supporters to vote could allow many UKIP local candidates in by the back door. This is an opportunity UKIP candidates need to seize, and in large numbers, if the party is to mount an serious effort in the general election. Only then will the seismic analogies already being used to tell UKIP’s story really be deserved.

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