Nigel Farage failed to win his seat, but his party has made significant gainsby Matthew Goodwin / May 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
One of the most intriguing developments in the general election was the emergence of Ukip in many traditionally Labour-held seats. While much of the attention was inevitably focused on South Thanet–where Nigel Farage failed in his quest to enter Westminster—less noticed were Ukip’s results outside of Conservative-held marginal seats. In the north west Ukip polled 32 per cent in Heywood and Middleton. In south Yorkshire it polled 30 per cent in Rotherham. In the North East it won 28 per cent in Hartlepool and over 18 per cent in Redcar and Sunderland. In London it polled 30 per cent in Dagenham and Rainham, the seat held by Jon Cruddas who has done more than most in his party to recognise and address identity-related anxieties among Britain’s left behind, blue-collar workers.
Ukip also emerged more forcefully in Wales where you can find the same kinds of communities that are struggling, with older, white and poorly-educated populations. In Islwyn, Farage and his party attracted 20 per cent. In Caerphilly they won 19 per cent. In Merthyr Tydfil, the self-anointed “People’s Army” won 19 per cent while in the tribal Labour seat of Llanelli the Eurosceptic party seemingly came out of nowhere to poll 16 per cent. Such results have already thrown a shadow over elections to the Welsh Assembly next year. But they also underline yet another challenge for Labour. Six of Ukip’s ten strongest results at the general election came in Labour-held seats.
Some on the left expressed shock at Ukip’s ability to enter double-digit support in its traditional Labour bastions. This is naïve. The writing has long been on the wall. Last year, at the European Parliament elections, the insurgent Ukip finished well ahead of Labour across a large swathe of its formerly industrial and declining territory. Farage’s band of amateurs then went on to almost seize the northern Labour stronghold of Heywood and Middleton. Locally, they have also been polling respectable results in towns like Rotherham and along England’s East Coast, where Labour used to be stronger. And as Rob Ford and myself pointed out in our book last year, Revolt on the Right, none of this should be a surprise when we consider the wider trend in Europe. From Paris to Berlin, social democrats have long been engaged in a debate about the so-called “cultural insecurity” that is pulling large numbers of working-class voters out of the left’s embrace and pushed them toward the welfare chauvinist, economically protectionist and xenophobic appeals of the radical right. Britain used to be the exception but we are no longer immune.
Interestingly, and worryingly for Labour, Ukip’s assault on red territory appears to have taken place with little investment. Ironically, it was seats that saw Ukip invest a considerable amount of effort where the party struggled to make a real breakthrough and enter the House of Commons. Only the defector—Douglas Carswell—made it over the line in the Essex seat of Clacton, although even there his share of the vote had slumped by 16 points since the by-election last autumn. Elsewhere, Ukip consistently failed to overcome first-past-the-post across its ten target seats. In the end its 32 per cent of the vote in Castle Point, 32 per cent in Thurrock, 30 per cent in Rotherham, 28 per cent in Hartlepool, and 32 per cent in South Thanet was not enough. In fact, in several of its target seats Ukip was a long way behind the winner. The party might have finished second in a new record of 122 constituencies but it ultimately failed to create the visible breakthrough that Farage had promised his supporters.
Read more on the election result:
What happens now is unclear. Farage has already outlined his intention to resign, at least temporarily, as Ukip’s leader. It was not a traditional resignation. Farage has talked in rather coded terms about stepping away for the summer and possibly putting himself forward in a future leadership election. At the time of writing it is not entirely clear whether he is going or staying and perhaps that is the point. What appears fairly certain is that there are few individuals within the party who would be able to reform the organization and articulate the same narrative of national loss, abandonment and threat that Farage has made his own. Having interviewed Farage on more than 15 occasions, I also think that there is no doubt that he will want to play an active role in what now looks certain to be one of the defining features of Cameron’s second term in office—a national referendum on Britain’s EU membership. This is something that Farage has spent his entire life working to achieve. In my view, it is simply inconceivable that he will walk away from national politics just at the moment when the chance to push for Brexit finally arrives. Until then he may pass Ukip over to a follower, a Farageist, only to then return when David Cameron is grappling with backbench eurosceptics who demand more from Brussels than Cameron would ever be able to extract. Or, we may never see him again.