Friday, 20 April 2012

When Does A Protest Vote Stop Being A Protest?

When it commands 9% of the vote and sits in third place in the polls, overtaking the coalition's junior partner.

That's what happened this week when a YouGov poll put UKIP on 9%, one point ahead of the Lib Dems. The first time this phenomenon has occurred.

As is often the way when the smaller parties make inroads at the expense of the big three, a spot of panicking breaks out, the scratching and ruffling of hair, followed by the soul searching. At least two of these were probably true if you were a Conservative.

How much of a danger do parties like UKIP really pose? Surely, it's typical to give the government a bashing two years into their term? Especially one feeling exposed, without a majority of its own to fall back on.

Nothing more than a bit of fun and games. When push comes to shove supporters will flock back to their masters. When it really matters, on polling day, they'll revert to type.

Or they won't.

It's right, as one commentator noted this week, that to treat UKIP as a political force is certainly over-doing it.

They don't have a single MP, control only one small council, and saw their leader, Nigel Farage, humiliated at the last general election, beaten into third place by Flipper - a guy dressed as a dolphin in protest at the 'flipping' of homes scandal that beset MPs that year. Something that the speaker, John Bercow, whose seat he was challenging, got caught up in.

Whichever way you look at it, UKIP's rise mirrors that of the forth column: 'Others.'

The Greens have their own MP, the likeable Caroline Lucas, and are the biggest presence on Brighton council, and in a strong position to replicate this success in Norwich.

The nationalists in Scotland are so popular that only in England are we daft enough to refer to them as one of the 'Other' parties. In Scotland, they're the government, and yet still have six MPs down in Westminster.

It's credit to their remarkable rise since devolution (although they have been around since 1934) that they now dominate the political landscape up there, trampling over each and every opponent.

At the last general election, 'Others' made up 11.9% of the vote. This of course also includes the nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the likes of UKIP and the SNP.

This pattern, the rise of the so-called protest vote, has been with us for some time.

A glance at the Guardian/ICM polls, carried out every month since 1984, indicates just when the Other grew in prominence.

Back then, and without UKIP and devolution in Scotland and Wales, Others captured between just one and two per cent of the vote.

Support grew steadily for the next 20 years, hovering around the 4-6% mark.

The breakthrough seems to come around 2003 (The Iraq war, a coincidence?), where it rarely drops below 7%, and starts to make inroads into double-figures. Since 2007, Others have consistently polled at anything between 10-13%.

Agreeing on why Other parties' votes eat into the big three is fraught with difficulty. Partly because every pundit on the left and right has his/her own theory, unable to settle on a consensus, and partly because the electorate are more volatile now than ever before.

If I had to sum up in one word why the likes of the SNP, and to a much lesser extent UKIP, attract so much support, it'd be this one: simplicity.

They offer voters a clear, unambiguous, blunt message.

For the SNP it's the chance of independence. A once in a generation opportunity to break free from the shackles of the detached, Westminster elite.

That, and a whole range of unashamedly left-wing, Old Labour, policies: free NHS prescriptions, free eye tests, no tuition fees.

And for this, they have never been so popular. Latest polls showing the SNP stretching their lead over Labour to 18 points. Almost half of Scots consistently back the party. Half. Can you imagine any of our parties getting anywhere near that figure anytime soon?

UKIP wows its own with the promise to withdraw, once and for all, from the EU. Why? As their website explains:

"Not because we hate Europe, or foreigners, or anyone at all, but because it is undemocratic, expensive, bossy -  and we still haven't been asked whether we want to be in it."

Politics doesn't come any simpler than that.

A referendum on EU membership was promised, then taken away. Voters know that only UKIP will grant them one. Whether they actually want one is a moot point.

On immigration, an issue we know still chimes with voters, they call for an end to mass, uncontrolled immigration, as well as an immediate five year freeze on people coming into Britain.

Dog-whistle politics, aimed at the lowest common denominator. And popular. To hand them a campaign slogan, you know where you stand with UKIP.

If the Tories are worried, they should be. Reports indicate that 10% of Conservative voters are ready to jump ship and back UKIP next month.

Tim Montgomerie, influential champion of the Tory grassroots, has put the frighteners on the party by hinting of possible defections by two MPs to UKIP.

This isn't just about the threat to the Conservatives.

We know that a number of disaffected working class Labour voters have switched to the far right BNP. Not in anywhere near the numbers that UKIP gets, but they're still lost Labour supporters.

After the BNP's success in 2009's local and European elections (winning almost 1 million votes, or a 6.2% share), the party was warned not to dismiss this as a mere protest vote, but:

"...rather something profound at work way beyond the Westminster bubble.

"A consistent voting pattern is emerging, partly driven by material concerns linked to issues of class and race. Yet the notion of the "protest" vote absolves parties from addressing their own shortcomings and the policy issues that are deemed unfashionable within SW1."

It's only our antiquated, disproportionate voting system that has prevented any UKIP or BNP members being parachuted into parliament.

Labour should be thanking their lucky stars there isn't a left wing UKIP equivalent.

The Respect party are still too small to make any impact at a national level, bar what we saw with last month's cult of the personality.

That doesn't mean they won't be an irritation at a local level, with seats on the Bradford council a target on May 3rd.

The mainstream parties need to understand that protest voters have stopped protesting. They have settled on parties that offer them something plain, straightforward, and easy to relate to.

Differences between the big three are far too nuanced and confusing for many voters to comprehend. They don't have the time or the inclination to leaf through manifestos, or look at how Labour would tackle the deficit, and which services they would or wouldn't cut.

The charge that they're all the same no longer rings true. The Others are not the same, and the public know it. That's why they're drawn to them.

This article was first published by Labour Uncut on Friday 20 April 2012

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