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
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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