The UKIP Puzzle and the Media Establishmentarianisation Hypothesis

by A. L. Shaw

UKIP's success in the European elections can only be fully explained by considering the party's presentation by the media as an Establishment force.

First published: 11 June, 2014 | Category: Europe, Politics, The Right

UKIP succeeded in the 2014 European elections by being perceived as an Establishment force, not as a non-Establishment minority party seeking protest or wasted votes. This highlights a very particular effect of modern media coverage – the effect of creating the appearance or perception of an Establishment party. This article suggests that none of the other present arguments are able to account for UKIP’s success, as they portray UKIP as a non-Establishment non-threat and ignore this media effect.

UKIP’s thumping performance in the 2014 European Elections poses a curious electoral puzzle. UK opinion polls over several years have consistently shown almost complete apathy towards European politics – far greater than for Westminster. Since at least 1997, Ipsos MORI has interviewed subjects on two questions: “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?” and “What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?” Its results show that from 2007 to May 2014, the proportion of interviewees asked naming the EU (abbreviated as ‘Com’) was never greater than 9%, though a very gentle upward trend may be observed in the period. This is a very marked decline from the preceding period from mid-1997 to 2006, which started at a peak of 37% (June 1999) and fell to 3% over almost all of 2006. So why, in 2014, did the Great British public seem to vote so avowedly against an issue while apparently caring so little about it?

This article examines four hypotheses presently given to explain UKIP’s success: the protest vote, the lowest common denominator, the respectable bigotry, and the clear blue water hypotheses. It seeks to show not only how these arguments do not succeed, but also their implicit assumption of establishmentarian bias; UKIP’s success does make sense provided one does not accept the view – including Nigel Farage’s own self-portrayal – of the party as an antiestablishmentarian force. It concludes that the traditional concept of establishmentarianism should not be taken too seriously, and that particular attention should be paid to the effects of media attention to minority parties – this is the media Establishmentarianisation hypothesis, from which the left could easily benefit.

The anti-Establishment ‘protest vote’ hypothesis

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has consistently portrayed himself as a non-career politician, and his party as a non-Establishment and non-elitist force:

Of course we’re a threat to the Establishment – and it is a sign of the times that that word is now said with an almost audible hiss in the background.[1]

Most reasonably minded people are sick to death of an established elite that has done our country so much damage. Ukip is a choice for us to change direction, and that is what the Establishment really fears.[2]

I’m in politics because of my beliefs not because I’m a career politician like so many these days.[3]

The hypothesis that UKIP’s European success was the result of protest voting which endorsed Farage’s antiestablishmentarianism and anti-elitism may be the most popular explanation at the time of writing. Philip Hammond, the Conservative MP and Defence Secretary, told The Telegraph that “Ukip is a 'protest party' with support made up of 'disillusioned voters' from other parties”; the Conservative Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, reportedly said “the rise in Ukip’s popularity was partly due to a backlash against the 'metropolitan elite'.” Possibly anticipating the Liberal Democrats’ electoral annihilation, Nick Clegg said in early May 2014 that “UKIP revelled in its status as 'Britain’s protest party', and accused it of 'scaring everybody witless' and 'indulging in dangerous fantasies'.” Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Sky News interviewer accepted this view, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt referred to Europe and protest voting against the main parties in his interview with Andrew Marr. And Neil Elkes reported in the Birmingham Mail that “while UKIP were justifiably in a joyous mood, spinners for the Conservatives and Labour parties claimed that the result is a result of a unique combination of factors; UKIP campaigning on their key policy area of Europe, a low turnout and a protest vote. They argue it will be a different matter in the 2015 General Election.”

It is easy to see why the three main parties – as they are presently still known – may adopt an implicitly self-consolatory tone: if UKIP’s success is a short-term protest, the electorate will come to a more considered choice by the 2015 general election, thereby foregoing any need to U-turn on any European policies. This view is not lost on Farage himself. In an interview with LBC Radio on 26th May 2014, he said: “In a sense, calling it a protest vote is really a comfort blanket for the three established parties in Westminster”, and talking to the BBC, he argued that by now it would at least be “a fairly permanent protest.” However, the same cannot be said for less partisan commentators. The Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh has argued that “Ukip has prospered by consolidating protest votes that used to go to a plurality of parties – but protest politics tends to splinter, and it will again.” Simon Jenkins, Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee and John Harris all accepted this assumption in their 2013 analysis in The Guardian. This suggests that the protest vote hypothesis does not serve purely party political interests, but is an analysis accepted by others too.

There are at least two flaws in this reasoning. Firstly, there were many other potential beneficiaries of protest voting: the list of all UK votes for the 2014 European election shows thirty available political parties, leaving twenty-seven available as non-Establishment protest votes. It is quite astonishing for a minority party to have gained and held the most seats out of all the available options, let alone beating the three leading parties; The New York Times reported, UKIP’s success “represented the first time since 1910 that a nationwide vote had not been won by either the Conservatives or Labour.” It is worth considering that the Liberal Democrats have been considered protest vote beneficiaries in previous elections, which their role as coalition government partners has now denied them, but their highest vote share in European elections came in 1994 with 16%, followed by 15% in 2004; their second most recent performance in 2009 gave them a 14% vote share. Put at its most frankly, UKIP has achieved – with 27.49% in 2014 and 16.5% in 2009 – in a far shorter time what the Liberal Democrats could only dream of. Previous protest votes have never been this sizeable. While not excluding the possibility outright, one must at least concede that this historic protest vote requires additional understanding; the UKIP protest vote hypothesis, as presently expressed, cannot reasonably deal with this issue of precedent.

The second flaw concerns the importance of European politics to the British public. As previously noted, Ipsos MORI research shows that an estimated maximum of 9% of interviewees in 2014 listed Europe, the EU, the Common Market or the Euro as the most or one of the most important issues facing the UK today. It is reasonable to suggest that there should be at least a basic correlation between such findings and their representation in voting behaviour; that is, the probability of protest voting against the EU should be far greater if the EU itself is an issue that a statistically significant number of people deem to be a major issue facing the UK. (On a methodological note, this does not mean that all votes cast would be protest votes, or that all those questioned who cited the EU as an important issue necessarily meant that they were against the EU, but that the overall likelihood of protest voting should increase by at least some proportion comparable to those who considered the issue important given that at least some of those concerned with the EU were reasonably likely to be against it.)

The UK results of previous European elections conform far more closely, at least since 1989, to the counter-cyclical voting behaviour typically observed in the US mid-term Congressional elections. Opposition parties usually do better in the intervening years between general or Presidential elections: Labour won the highest proportion of UK European votes during their Opposition years in 1989 and 1994 (although not during Mrs Thatcher’s rhetorically Eurosceptic premiership); the Conservatives performed likewise during theirs in 1999, 2004 and 2009. Were protest voting to explain UKIP’s 2014 performance, it would have to have suddenly become a far stronger factor to overwhelm this much more established counter-cyclical electoral trend. This is very unlikely if Europe itself as a political issue facing the UK has declined in importance since 1997, when no such trend in that period was observed.

 

The ‘lowest common denominator’ hypothesis

Probably the most common criticism of UKIP’s 2014 European elections campaign was that it represented the basest xenophobic scaremongering form of politics, focusing particularly on immigration and foreign labour, rising crime (warning particularly of a “Romanian crime wave”), and endangered employment and wages.[4] [5] [6] The former Tory Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine categorically stated in a 2013 BBC interview:

We’ve seen UKIPs before: it was called Powellism, on the Continent it’s called Le Pen and Poujade, and they’re even there now in Germany on a very small scale; they’re there in Holland. You always have these right-wing racist operations pandering to the lowest common denominator in politics, and that’s what’s happening.

[...]

Of course [UKIP] is racist. Of course – who doubts that? The language, the rhetoric, the membership – who doubts it? [...] [Farage’s] party is attractive to a racist agenda; everyone knows that.[7]

UKIP’s triumph may easily be seen as a triumph of the enduring potency of this electoral strategy. UKIP has always insisted it represents a “common sense” platform of border controls, and that any mention of scaremongering is further evidence that the Establishment is feeling challenged. Moreover, Ipsos MORI findings show that race relations and immigration was almost equal with the economy as the most or one of the most important issues facing Britain, consistently polling between 35% and 40% in 2014, with unemployment a close third (26% – 32%).

However, unlike arguable far-right forerunners of this approach, UKIP’s success was not localised to certain post-industrial traditionally Labour heartlands still recovering from Thatcher’s mass privatisation policies, but were nationwide. This included a number of areas – such as the West Country and the Home Counties (except London, its second least successful region after Scotland) – where unemployment in December 2013 was mostly significantly below the national average in May 2014 of 6.8%. Had UKIP triumphed only in the most economically deprived or socially disunited communities (as the National Front or the British National Party (BNP) have done in previous years) this analysis would be viable. Alleged threats to life and livelihood are among some of the psychologically strongest appeals, so only those most directly and acutely affected would be likely to vote for a party that promised to remedy such fears. However, UKIP’s appeal was evidently socioeconomically far broader; the lowest common denominator hypothesis cannot encompass a broader class solidarity argument, as in traditional Marxism, as class solidarity represents the ‘becoming conscious’ of the whole class base rather than just localised circumstances. It is very clear from this that UKIP did not appeal just to the electoral fringes of society, but to the (ironically) established middle-class shires too. If scaremongering did not win Middle England votes for the BNP, for example, it is very difficult to insist that it must have worked for UKIP.

 

The ‘respectable bigotry’ hypothesis

This sibling view of the lowest common denominator hypothesis may appear closer to the truth, and has a lot of circumstantial evidence to support it. UKIP dealt with the many press reports of party members expressing intolerant views by using the ‘bad apples’ defence and either suspending or expelling them. Such cases included MEP Godfrey Bloom’s remarks on “Bongo Bongo Land” and “sluts”, Henley-on-Thames Councillor David Silvester’s views on gay marriage and the UK 2014 winter floods, Harry Perry’s comments on Muslim “Devil’s kids”, Winston McKenzie’s statements on gay parents “who bring up their kids encouraging them to believe they are gay themselves”, and Redditch Councillor Dave Small’s post-election comments on gay “perverts” and African immigrant “scroungers”. And, yet, UKIP’s appeal does not appear to have suffered. Such resilience against such negative publicity is very unusual for traditionally electorally precarious minority parties.

Nigel Nelson, writing in The Daily Mirror, argued that what matters more than whether its members are racist is if UKIP succeeds in making such views respectable, citing a YouGov poll that “showed that 27 per cent of those questioned believe Nigel Farage’s mob hold “racist views” but will vote for them on Thursday anyway.”

Unlike the foregoing hypotheses discussed, this does have some backing based on at least one senior UKIP member. Former UKIP Campaign Director Neil Hamilton, the former Conservative MP who failed to win a UKIP European seat in May 2014, argued a month previously:

They feel their communities are being swamped by immigrants from outside, whether they are from Eastern Europe or from other parts of the world.

Now those people, the decent supporters of the BNP, from the last election, who weren’t true BNP supporters at all, I am sure that quite a few of them are voting for a respectable alternative, which is UKIP.[8]

Moreover, there are political precedents for this hypothesis. The Conservative MP Enoch Powell – a Cambridge-educated classical scholar and poet, former Professor of Ancient Greek (by the age of 25) and decorated Brigadier – continues to be remembered as the man who made racism respectable.[9] [10] [11] Powell peppered his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech not only with classical allusions, notably to Virgil’s Aeneid (to which the popular title refers), but also with notorious references (from an anonymous letter) to an elderly widow “becoming afraid to go out”, “excreta”, and “charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies”. Powell warned portentously of civil strife as a direct result of immigration and urged his party, then in Opposition, to implement its policy of voluntary repatriation when elected:

Hence the urgency of implementing now the second element of the Conservative Party’s policy: the encouragement of re-emigration. [...]

If such a policy were adopted and pursued with the determination which the gravity of the alternative justifies, the resultant outflow could appreciably alter the prospects.

The Tory Opposition leader, Ted Heath, sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet post for this speech, but many credited Powell with ushering Heath into Number 10 two years later by winning considerable support for his position. The London dockers famously marched in his support, and Powell received tens of thousands of supportive letters. He remarked many years later in old age: “Nobody had any idea of the effect that it would have. It touched a spring – a spring which vibrated in the hearts of millions of people in this country.”[12] [13] Indeed, the 1970 Conservative manifesto’s section on race relations and immigration bears all of Powell’s hallmarks:

[...] future immigration will be allowed only in strictly defined special cases. There will be no further large scale permanent immigration.

We will give assistance to Commonwealth immigrants who wish to return to their countries of origin, but we will not tolerate any attempt to harass or compel them to go against their will.[14]

This policy was never implemented, and Powell resigned from the Tory Party when Heath’s Government fell in 1975. However, Heath’s successor as Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, pursued a significantly Powellite agenda in economics and home affairs. In advance of the following election in 1979, Thatcher controversially stated in a World in Action interview:

I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. [...]

So, either you go on taking in 40 or 50,000 a year, which is far too many, or you say we must hold out the prospect of a clear end to immigration and that is the view we have taken and I am certain that is the right view to keep good race relations and to keep fundamental British characteristics which have done so much for the world.[15]

Much like Powell’s inflammatory speech ten years previously, which won many votes significantly to the right of Ted Heath’s ideology, Thatcher’s approach to immigration is likely to have overwhelmed the electoral efforts of the National Front in 1979, all of whose 303 candidates failed to win at least 5% of their constituency votes.

There are certainly some possible parallels in 2014. Perhaps principally is the BNP, which saw its vote share decline from more than 6% in 2009 to just over 1% in 2014 and losing both of its MEPs (including the party leader himself, Nick Griffin). Moreover, the BNP won fewer votes than An Independence From Europe (AIFE), established only in 2013 by a former UKIP member. And the publication in May 2014 of the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, which reported a rise to 30% of respondents describing themselves as racially prejudiced, attracted considerable press attention,[16] [17] [18] [19] with some reports[20] [21] drawing specific parallels with most recent UKIP’s electoral performance.

However, these findings need careful scrutiny. As observed by the New Statesman, the Daily Mirror and Alison Park, research group director at NatCen Social Research and co-director of the British Social Attitudes survey, the 30% figure combines the “very” and “a little” responses to the question “How would you describe yourself: as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or, not prejudiced at all?”; the “very” faction is only about 3%. Secondly, as Park also noted:

[...] the highest levels of prejudice are found among older generations, the less well educated and those in less skilled occupations. Just over a third (36%) of the over-55s described themselves as prejudiced, compared with a quarter (25%) of 18- to 34-year-olds. And while one in five graduates (19%) say they are prejudiced, this is true of 38% of people with no qualifications.

Voter turnout in the UK has a strong positive correlation with increased age: Ipsos MORI reported in 2010 that turnout ranged from 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds to 76% of the over-65s. This is compounded by a declining voting preference for the Liberal Democrats with increased age, a relatively uniform voting preference for Labour, and an increased preference for the Conservatives; and apart from the 18 – 24 age range, there is little gender variance within age groups.

The respectable bigotry hypothesis would rather easily suggest that the strongly conservative UKIP benefitted greatly from the UK’s increasingly electorally preponderant proportion of increasingly racially-biased post-middle-age voters. Such voters may have been more attracted to UKIP’s uncompromising appropriation of more traditional Conservative policies than the modern Conservatives’ pro-Europeanism – only partially mitigated by David Cameron’s “cast iron” promise of an ‘in/out’ referendum on Europe by 2017.

The following table illustrates how this hypothesis corresponds probabilistically to the figures:[22]

 

Figure 1

Demographic

Demographic size (England, Wales and Scotland)

Voter turnout in 2010 (average: 65%)

Adjusted turnout based on 34.19% average

Number of likely votes

Proportion admitting to being “a little” or “very” racially biased

Number of racially-biased likely voters

Number of non-racially-biased likely voters

18 ‒ 19

1,548,000

44%

23%

358,269

25%

89,567

268,702

20 ‒ 24

4,171,000

44%

23%

965,336

25%

241,334

724,002

25 ‒ 29

4,183,000

55%

29%

1,210,142

25%

302,535

907,606

30 ‒ 34

4,006,000

55%

29%

1,158,936

25%

289,734

869,202

35 ‒ 39

4,072,000

66%

35%

1,413,636

30%

424,091

989,545

40 ‒ 44

4,494,000

66%

35%

1,560,137

30%

468,041

1,092,096

45 ‒ 49

4,512,000

69%

36%

1,637,585

30%

491,276

1,146,310

50 ‒ 54

3,978,000

69%

36%

1,443,775

30%

433,133

1,010,643

55 ‒ 59

3,515,000

73%

38%

1,349,690

34%

458,894

890,795

60 ‒ 64

3,713,000

73%

38%

1,425,718

34%

484,744

940,974

65 ‒ 69

2,935,000

76%

40%

1,173,296

34%

398,921

774,375

70 ‒ 74

2,400,000

76%

40%

959,424

34%

326,204

633,220

75 ‒ 79

1,956,000

76%

40%

781,931

36%

281,495

500,436

80 ‒ 84

1,460,000

76%

40%

583,650

36%

210,114

373,536

85 ‒ 89

897,000

76%

40%

358,585

37%

132,676

225,908

90 and over

466,000

76%

40%

186,288

37%

68,927

117,362

Total

48,306,000

   

16,566,396

 

5,101,686

11,464,711

 

This analysis shows the number of possibly eligible voters and the amount of racially biased voting that could occur. If the voting behaviour by age recorded in the 2010 election is applied to the 2014 election, and the proportions adjusted accordingly, the figures show the potential availability of just over five million votes influenced by racial bias – certainly enough to account for UKIP’s winning tally of 4,376,635 votes.

For the respectable bigotry hypothesis, possibly the most favourable interpretation of this is that UKIP did not split the Tory vote (as several commentators speculated).[23] [24] [25] [26] It was, rather, the remaining leading parties that split the non-UKIP vote: the remaining available balance of eleven million votes accounts for the sum (10,145,401) of Labour (4,020,646), Conservative (3,792,549), Green (1,255,573) and Liberal Democrat (1,087,633) votes.[27] By any reckoning, the non-UKIP lobby easily outweighed the UKIP vote, but UKIP was able to consolidate its support in a way that eluded its opponents.

Faced with what may appear to be an overwhelming case in favour of the establishmentarian-biased respectable bigotry hypothesis, we should emphasise the difficulties with it.

Firstly, consider the UK’s political culture resulting from the predominantly two-party system. The 2010 Ipsos MORI report shows that while those voting for non-Establishment ‘other’ parties increased slightly with age, this peaked at only 13% among the over-65s; this is nowhere near enough to compete with the 44% in the same age group or the 38% of 55- to 64-year-olds who voted Conservative. The probability of not voting for any established party should be massively outweighed by the probability of voting for a strongly right-wing political position; that is, minority right-wing groups should probabilistically lose out to a far greater extent on the former count than they would gain on the latter.

No non-top-two or -three political party has ever managed to beat the main parties in a national vote; the UK’s political culture is heavily predicated on the majority party system, which heavily disadvantages minority parties – it is not just the non-proportional first-past-the-post electoral system that does so. There is little justifiable reason to believe that the respectable bigotry of UKIP was so appealing as to triumph over such political cultural bias. The analogies with Powell and Thatcher are only normally justifiable with Establishment majority parties; it was the oldest established British political party (the Conservatives) that appropriated the support of voters of a minority party, whereas this hypothesis insists the converse – the antiestablishmentarian minority party with no MPs was able to appropriate the votes of the larger establishment party. To recall: Ipsos MORI research shows that 90% of all UK voters in 2010 voted for the three main parties; it seems incredible that this could have changed so radically since then. Moreover, straightforward comparisons with Marine Le Pen’s Front National, for example, do not account for the differences in political culture: France has a multi-party system, where this bias is less significant; it is vital to remember that Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously lost only to Jacques Chirac in the 2002 French Presidential election.

If this is a justifiable counterargument, it follows, secondly, that UKIP cannot attribute its vote share just to its policies, as the political cultural factors against UKIP will have deterred voters to a far greater extent than the appeal of policy is likely to have attracted them – usually known as the ‘wasted vote’ factor. While Ipsos MORI recorded about a 35% average in 2014 of individuals giving immigration and race relations as an important issue, it would not explain a minority party attracting so much dramatic support if the probability of a wasted vote in a predominantly two-party system is far higher.

Thirdly, as already cautioned, the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey – upon which Figure 1 is based, simply to state the case for the hypothesis as fully as possible – combined the “a little” and “very” racially-biased responses. While it is reasonable to suggest that of the 3% in the latter category to have voted will have done so according to their prejudices, it is very difficult to make any judicious assumptions about those in the former. This 27% of the British public makes for very difficult and haphazard analysis; perhaps the principal difficulty lies in determining whether such “a little” bias will inform voting behaviour at all, or if it will be much more greatly outweighed by other political issues. For 27% of the population, this could easily be a very significant statistical ‘red herring’.

Finally, fourthly, it is very difficult to determine on the evidence presently available whether respectable bigotry is electorally more attractive in a secret ballot system rather than more overt examples. UKIP deselected or expelled the candidates who did express such explicit views openly, so the absence of a comparison basis with, for example, the BNP makes the hypothesis in its current form unfalsifiable.

 

The ‘clear blue water’ hypothesis

All political parties seek ‘clear blue water’ to distinguish themselves from their opponents, and this many figures continue to note its importance.[28] [29] [30] [31] [32] UKIP’s principal challenge was its offer of ‘clear blue water’ between it and the other major parties. The 2014 UKIP European manifesto promised an in/out referendum on EU membership, the guarantee to leave the EU outright if the British public voted accordingly, and to use Britain’s position “as the EU’s biggest customer [...] to negotiate an amicable exit and free trade deal under existing treaties.” Such arrangements already exist with the US, Canada and Mexico under the trilateral North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, and would guarantee much the same advantages enjoyed as part of the EU but without the supranational political, economic and judicial overriding of British sovereignty. This would also enable the UK to set its own border controls, in a manner such as Australia, without supranational interference; national interest alone would determine immigration policy. And international aid would be drastically cut, though the UKIP manifesto made no explicit policy commitment.

By setting itself deliberately apart from the political mainstream, UKIP has demonstrated that there are dramatic gains to be made in avowedly rejecting the Blairite-Gouldian-Mandelsonian centre-ground electoral formula. While it admittedly remains to be seen whether this represents a longer-term trend in the British electorate itself – that is, whether the centre-ground has itself shifted in UKIP’s favour in a consistent and reliable manner – it seems unlikely that all three mainstream parties would have missed such a transition. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats continue to rely heavily on focus grouping to test their potential policies; this hypothesis suggests it is much more likely that the clear blue water factor was much more appealing by creating the appearance of choice and being unafraid of controversy.

This hypothesis is also fallible. Firstly, as already noted, UKIP was hardly the only ‘clear blue water party’; some voters also chose the Green Party, the BNP, the Christian Peoples Alliance, AIFE and many other factions, all of whom publicised myriad views. Secondly, UKIP’s clear blue water appeal is premised on only one, or a few interrelated, areas. While their manifesto very briefly discussed border and immigration control, the 2008 Climate Change Act and subsidised renewable energy, the National Health Service, lighter company regulation, prisoners’ voting rights, fisheries policy, social housing, absolutely no mention was made of broader economic policies, education, law and order, international aid, social security, agriculture, defence and national security, local government, Scottish independence or further devolution, transport, culture media and sport, or foreign affairs. A party with no clear blue water on the most important current issue – the economy (36% in April 2014) – was able to outweigh such concerns by simply campaigning on an anti-EU platform, about which fewer than 10% of Brits care at all.

 

Conclusion: the media Establishmentarianisation hypothesis

The primary purpose of this article has been to analyse the leading hypotheses for UKIP’s European success. Its conclusion is that none of them can account for a minority party without any Westminsterial representation at all overcoming the majoritarian cultural, the establishmentarian, or the counter-cyclical biases inherent in the UK political system that only normally favour established parties.

It is also possible to see why not. The ‘protest vote’ view assumes an unambiguous dichotomy between the establishmentarian Labour, Conservative and probably the Liberal Democrat parties, and the non-Establishment ‘other’s – including UKIP; a protest voter is one who votes ‘other’. The ‘lowest common denominator’ position assumes that certain contentious issues – chiefly, I submit, immigration (probably UKIP’s key electoral hook) – are only of particular concern to deprived, working-class communities, when in fact UKIP’s appeal was socioeconomically far broader, including a number of establishmentarian Home Counties. The ‘respectable bigotry’ position faces the most difficulties: when taken to its logical core, it is also a strongly establishmentarian tendency which has historically only favoured majority parties and only deprived minority parties of votes. And the ‘clear blue water’ issue has thus far been understood to be a problem facing the establishment parties, as an essential element of their electoral strategy is the delicate balance of targeting Middle England voters (the Blairite-Gouldian-Mandelsonian centre-ground electoral formula) and stressing the absence of common ground with their opponents. It should be almost impossible to win establishmentarian votes on such a proclaimed antiestablishmentarian platform.

The above arguments do, however, pave the way for a new hypothesis: the media Establishmentarianisation hypothesis. This observes that possibly the single greatest advantage UKIP has enjoyed over its non-establishment competitors has been the media coverage it has enjoyed. Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford observed in the New Statesman that a UKIP representative has appeared as a panellist on the BBC’s Question Time 21 times since 2009 (and a few more since their article was published in 2013) – more than double the number of appearances by the Green Party – and that its print media publicity is far greater than other minor parties. Indeed, this even outweighs the negative publicity discussed in the respectable bigotry hypothesis. Goodwin and Ford’s graph shows the number of UKIP mentions in the print media:[33]

 

 

This is neither to imply that there is no Establishment, nor that UK politics is now non-Establishment; the foregoing analysis shows that the UK political system remains avowedly skewed in such parties’ favour. The principal point is that UKIP’s European victory is the latest indication of the particular effect of modern media coverage – it has helped to create the appearance of an Establishment party, and to create political effects previously exclusively associated with Labour and the Conservatives. This means it was not a traditionally understood protest vote victory; any majority party standing on such a platform would probably have performed just as well. It means that UKIP won millions of votes using anti-immigration rhetoric and was able to upturn the normally majoritarian-favouring respectable bigotry effect of Powell and Thatcher by being perceived as an Establishment party rather than as freakish extremists like the BNP or even Eurosceptic Tory factions, such as that led previously by John Redwood (who challenged the establishmentarian John Major and lost). And, as a perceived Establishment force, it was easily able to assert ‘clear blue water’ on Europe and immigration without the centre-ground trade-off normally risked by the older parties; any such party standing on such a platform is likely to have won as Figure 1 shows. UKIP’s success was a very curious, and very new, media-perception quasi-establishmentarian victory.

For all the justified worry about what this implies about the reactionary UK electorate, I suggest that all it really provides are opportunities for progressives to pursue the same media strategy. Environmentalists, progressives and socialists can easily benefit from an increased perception of establishmentarianism and having their offers of electoral choice being taken very much more seriously. Indeed, Ipsos MORI research shows that the NHS (27% in May 2014), poverty (15%) and unemployment (32%) are also considered very important electoral issues, about which UKIP has had either no or only a very selective narrative.

The fundamental point of UKIP’s success is that it is not only exclusivist out-group rhetoric and policy that now wins elections, but also the perception of being an Establishment force – not a minority party seeking protest or wasted votes. Perhaps the greatest mistake made by the main three parties was to assume the comfort of establishmentarianism, and to assume that a non-Establishment party by definition will not pose a challenge – the repeated comments about protest voting testify to this enduring tendency. Defeating UKIP will not be straightforward: there is no precedent in modern British politics for dethroning a newly established party – but this is what it will take.

 

A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, where he held a Morrell scholarship. He is now a freelance writer based in London.



[12] Michael Cockerell, Odd Man Out, BBC documentary, 1995; the relevant segment is available here

[13] Some footage of Powell’s speech and of the reaction to it is available here

[15] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103485; footage of some of this interview is available here

[20] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/racism-on-the-rise-in-uk-with-1-in-3-people-admitting-prejudice-9443555.html

[21] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/27/-sp-ra

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