Cameron's UKIP headache is self-inflicted

The fringe party of Eurosceptics could become big enough to prevent a Tory majority in 2015.

If the normally reliable Tim Montgomerie is right then several Tory MPs are on the verge of defecting to Nigel Farage's UKIP. Although UKIP has never come close to winning a Westminster seat, and boasts just one MP defector - Bob Spink - since its formation in the late 1990s, it's not a surprise that a handful of euro-obsessed Tory MPs are thinking about defection. More serious for the Tories is UKIP's emergence as a viable challenger to the Lib Dems in national elections. The party has been consistently polling between 7-10 per cent in the last few months which, while almost certainly not enough to win a seat in the Commons, is more than enough to deny the Tories a handful of marginal constituencies and, potentially, a Commons majority.

Just as George Galloway’s upset victory in Bradford should shake any complacency in Labour that they will be the automatic beneficiaries of rising public anger against government and the political class, the Tories cannot afford to dismiss of UKIP out of hand. It’s actually not hard to see why UKIP carries appeal. Nigel Farage is a witty and fluent speaker and he speaks to an old-fashioned breed of reactionary nationalism combined with social and fiscal conservatism which can still be found in conservative clubs and associations up and down the country.

Meanwhile, with the EU facing an almost existential crisis over the future of the single currency and most countries either in recession or on the brink, it is a great time to be a Eurosceptic. Indeed, the performances of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melanchon in France have shown that anti-establishment parties of the extreme-right and hard-left carry plenty of appeal to voters fed up with a political establishment that has landed them with debts, deficits and austerity-driven recession. With the Lib Dems having given up their status as a protest vote party by nailing their colours to the Tory, UKIP has plenty of fertile ground at its disposal.

Outside European elections, where UKIP can campaign on its raison d’etre and pick up eurosceptic votes from all of the three main parties, its vote share poses a lot more threat to the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. Indeed, around 60 per cent of UKIP voters are disaffected Tories. In 1997 a number of Tory MPs fell to small majorities where the Referendum Party candidate got more votes than the majority and in 2005, as well, UKIP votes cost the Tories a handful of seats.

Although they are now well-placed to pick up protest votes, the truth is that UKIP is the product of the Conservative party's unhealthy obsession with the EU which, nearly twenty years after Maastricht, is still no closer to being resolved. There is very little difference between Farage and the Tory Maastricht rebels of the early 1990s, or even Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party which took 3 oer cent of the vote at the 1997 election.

David Cameron is also the perfect Tory leader for UKIP. Having won the party leadership in 2005 with the support of many Eurosceptics after having promised to take the Tories out of the European People's Party - the party group for centre-right parties across Europe - he has attempted the impossible task of placating both ardent Eurosceptics and moderates. Hence, Cameron opposed the Lisbon Treaty but ruled out tearing it up and re-negotiating and has made no serious attempt to win any opt-outs or derogations. In coalition with the pro-European Lib Dems his balancing act is even tougher and the bizarre ‘non-veto' at the December EU summit achieved the double whammy of upsetting the Lib Dems and, when they realised that Cameron hadn't actually blocked or won anything, the Tory back-benches.

Cameron’s insoluble problem is that his Eurosceptics will be disappointed by anything less than British withdrawal from the EU or, at the very least, radical re-negotiation of Britain's membership. The chances of EU withdrawal are zero and, having burnt most of his remaining political bridges at the December summit, there is no virtually no chance of other European leaders agreeing to re-negotiation. All of which is manna from heaven to UKIP.

The main problem that UKIP face – and which is the reason why, outside of the European elections, the party has little prospect of a breakthrough - is a lack of money and activists. With around 15,000 members across the UK and no big donors they simply don't have the cash or shoe-leather to contest more than a handful of seats. Moreover, like most fringe parties they are a one-man band, which is just as well because aside from Farage there is very little talent in their ranks.

The other benefit of being small is a lack of scrutiny. With no chance of ever winning seats outside the European Parliament, its party policy and politicians are little known and little discussed. Since two of the 12 UKIP MEPs elected in 2004 have since been jailed for fraud and the party continues to be dogged by allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia, this is no bad thing for UKIP.

But while they may be small, UKIP deserve to be taken seriously. They outpolled Labour and the Lib Dems in the last European elections and, while the euro crisis continues, they have every chance of beating the Tories in 2014. Domestically, they pose a small but deceptively serious problem for the Tories – not big enough to win seats for themselves, but certainly big enough to sink the prospects of a Tory majority. Frustratingly for the Tories, the rise of UKIP is almost entirely self-inflicted.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.