Insurgent parties are the known unknowns of the next UK election. Last week one of them, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), launched its campaign on a fading esplanade in the Conservative-held seat of Castle Point. 'Believe in Britain' was how Nigel Farage chose to summarize his pitch to voters — but just as telling was the place where he chose to say them. Far away from Westminster, this working-class constituency is in UKIP's emerging Essex heartland and has a long tradition of revolts against the establishment.
At the last election an independent came second, with 27 per cent of the vote. Now, the unafilliated Canvey Island independents who have 16 seats on Castle Point borough council have pledged their allegiance to UKIP's candidate, a local timber merchant. Twelve months ago, few believed UKIP could win a single seat in the general election. But now there are half a dozen constituencies like Castle Point, which seem to be Farage's for the taking.
In part, that reflects how well Farage has forged an affinity with a disaffected group of 'left behind' Britons — primarily white- or blue-collar workers who are middle-aged or older and typically have few qualifications and little prospect of earning much more than £25,000. But it is also a mark of the ineptitude with which the two main parties have fought back against the radical right revolt.
The Conservatives initially derided Farage and his party as an amateur gang of clowns and closet racists. The strategy was to mock UKIP and its supporters out of existence. Neither David Cameron nor the band of modernizers that surrounds the prime minister had understood the power of traditional social conservatism, and the intensity of anger among its most ardent followers.
Worse, they underestimated Farage, who has spent two decades refining his message for voters who feel anxious about social change and fear that politicians have left them behind.
Belatedly, the Tories have changed tack, hoping to quell the rebellion by offering such concessions as a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU and talking tough on migrant benefits. It is probably too late. Many social conservatives have left the room, disdainful of Cameron and the transactional form of politics that Farage has long ridiculed from the sidelines. Cameron's ratings among the voters most hostile to the EU and immigration have slumped. His strategists have repeated the miscalculation that the Blairites made a decade earlier: that their core voters had nowhere else to go.
Labour's response has been no better, passing slowly from complacency to denial and then misdiagnosis. Strategists on the centre-left should have looked to mainland Europe, where radical right parties have been devastatingly effective in the socialist heartlands. Only in the local and European elections of 2014, when it became clear that UKIP could appeal to centre-left voters too, did Labour take action.
Even then, the party wilfully ignored the social and cultural tinge to voters' complaints, instead imagining that they could be bought off with talk about a living wage. To voters mainly concerned about the social effects of immigration, Farage's story about a loss of national identity was far more compelling.
The trouble for both parties is that they have misunderstood what UKIP is and what it represents. Like populist radical right parties in continental Europe, the party is thriving in the rift between those who are broadly at ease with diversity and those who feel culturally threatened.
Last week Farage claimed that people do not vote for his party for its policies so much as 'because they see us as honest, straight-talking and sounding like them'. It was not a protest vote, he insisted, but a 'a state of mind'. By the time the election is over, we might discover that it is one many Britons share.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times.
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