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UKIP came fourth in 1999, third in 2004, and second in 2009. Is it possible that in the next elections to the European parliament in 2014, UKIP could come top?
The short answer is yes. Unless there is a big change in fortunes of the main political parties, I expect a close fight between UKIP and Labour for first place, both winning around 25 per cent, with the Conservatives trailing third on around 20 per cent. (The Lib Dems could find themselves struggling to avoid fifth place, behind the Greens; but that’s another story.)
This year’s local elections confirm the findings of YouGov’s voting intention surveys: UKIP is currently more popular than at any time in its history, outside the special circumstances of European election campaigns. If it keeps up its present polling support of around 8 per cent, it will enter the 2014 election with more support than before. It will also benefit from the fact that 2014 will see the first proportional-voting Euro-elections under a Tory prime minister. In the past three elections, most right-of-centre anti-government voters were likely to vote Conservative. Next time, many will be looking for a different way to register their discontent. They are unlikely to vote Labour, Lib Dem or Green, and the BNP’s recent internal feuding, declining membership and financial incompetence has cost it what little credibility it enjoyed a few years ago.
Fresh YouGov polling for Prospect confirms UKIP’s potential. We asked people how likely they were to consider voting for different parties, on a scale from zero (never consider it) to ten (definitely consider it). If we take a score of five or above as an indication of possible support, then Labour (54 per cent) comfortably leads the Tories (42 per cent). There is a close contest for third place between the Greens (35 per cent), the Lib Dems (33 per cent) and UKIP (31 per cent). The BNP, with just 12 per cent, trails a distant sixth. But among Tories, fully 40 per cent say they might, or will, consider voting UKIP.
That is the crucial number, for European elections play to UKIP’s strengths. Turnout is likely to be low, so a party that can mobilise voters who feel strongly about Europe stands to gain. If just one third of people vote in these elections, UKIP needs to attract only 8 per cent or so of all electors to win a 25 per cent share among those who turn out. And the beauty from UKIP’s point of view is that Tories can lend their vote to UKIP in European elections safe in the knowledge that David Cameron will still be prime minister afterwards. There is no danger that, by voting UKIP, they will give Ed Miliband (or, indeed, Nigel Farage) the keys to Downing Street the next day.
The one likely outcome of a strong UKIP performance is a Conservative commitment to an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU (if Cameron has not already promised this, to calm his backbenchers and to try to head off a UKIP triumph). If you are a Eurosceptic who normally votes Tory, what’s not to like about backing UKIP this time around?
Our poll also tested people’s attitudes to the two emblematic issues of UKIP and the BNP: Europe and immigration. The results show that the two nationalist parties are tapping into widely held public feelings. Four out of ten of us think Britain should “withdraw completely from the EU,” while only 33 per cent disagree. And by two-to-one, we think “all further immigration to the UK should be halted.”
Not surprisingly, potential UKIP and BNP voters feel particularly strongly about both things. However, two things are striking: the range of views among potential UKIP and BNP voters is virtually identical—and in both cases, immigration arouses even stronger hostility than Europe.
Can this be explained by a large overlap between the potential voters of UKIP and the BNP? Only to a limited extent. Overall, 9 per cent of the electorate would consider voting either UKIP or BNP, while 3 per cent would consider voting BNP but not UKIP—but as many as 22 per cent would consider voting UKIP but not BNP.
As these figures suggest, it’s not that the UKIP-only portion of the electorate think differently from BNP’s potential supporters on these issues: they don’t. Rather, UKIP is the acceptable “brand” of nationalist politics, while BNP is now a hopelessly toxic brand.
One final thought to give Cameron sleepless nights: the next Euro elections will take place less than a year before the next general election. Suppose UKIP comes top in 2014 and gains credibility as an electoral force. Suppose it then fields candidates throughout Britain and persuades broadcasters to give it more air-time in 2015 than in any previous general election. I’d still expect its vote to fall back below 10 per cent. But it could hold on to enough right-of-centre votes in the key marginals to cost the Conservatives vital seats. Farage could end up helping Miliband to become prime minister after all.
Read more: James Macintyre on the men behind UKIP’s rise