An earthquake called Ukip hits Britain

Published by The Wall Street Journal (17th October, 2014)

It is curious to think that the modest seaside resort of Clacton might end up a landmark in British history. Yet future historians may one day trace the effective end of Britain’s two-party system—and conceivably even of the Conservative Party—to this fading place of few pretensions on the Essex coast. For last week its residents overwhelmingly backed the decision of their former Tory member of Parliament, a maverick libertarian named Douglas Carswell, to resign from the party and stand under the banner of the UK Independence Party (Ukip).

This gave Ukip its first elected member of Parliament—and sent a seismic shock through Britain’s political system. Like many Victorian seaside towns, Clacton has struggled in an age of budget airlines, leaving it filled with the sort of disgruntled elderly and undereducated voters who offer fertile terrain for those railing at modernity. So this was a promising place for the insurgent force, founded on opposition to British membership in the European Union but now riding waves of anger over immigration and perceived failures of the political class. But few predicted such an easy Ukip victory—or foresaw that Ukip would nearly snatch a safe Labour seat in a second by-election the same day.

Three days later there were more tremors when a Sunday newspaper poll found that one in four British voters support Ukip. This would give a party once dismissed by Prime Minister David Cameron as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” more than 100 members of Parliament, along with the balance of power in a hung Parliament. That is a remarkable change of fortune since last year, when Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, was forced to disown the party’s entire election manifesto after it was found to include absurdities such as dress codes for theatergoers and taxi drivers. Now he panics mainstream rivals who struggle to thwart his populist appeal even as they toughen their stances on immigration and welfare.

Ukip’s ratings will probably slip back, but pollsters predict that the party could still win up to 30 seats even under a British voting system that militates against smaller parties. Meanwhile the Scottish National Party, boosted by its strong performance in last month’s failed bid for independence, is expected to pick up an extra 20 seats in Labour’s stronghold of Scotland; even the hard-left Greens are snapping at the heels of bigger parties.

No wonder few dare to predict the result of a critical general election next May—the first since the introduction of five-year, fixed-term parliaments. The traditional parties are vulnerable to widespread contempt for Westminster, fueled by issues as diverse as misuse of expenses by members of Parliament, anger over bankers’ bonuses and soaring foreign-aid budgets. A new era of multiparty politics is smashing into a two-party system that has been crumbling for decades.

Conservative and Labour candidates picked up 96.8% of the votes in 1951, when an elderly Sir Winston Churchill was returned to Downing Street. Four years ago, when David Cameron became the youngest prime minister in almost two centuries, less than two-thirds of the electorate backed the traditional red-blue duopoly. This led to Britain’s first coalition government since World War II, with the Tories joined by centrist Liberal Democrats; many fear a more complex, and less stable, coalition after next year’s election.

The most uncertain election campaign in recent British history effectively began last month with the party conferences—annual political jamborees filled with politicians, journalists and lobbyists. The events are held in almost sacred veneration by the political world; when I was a Cameron adviser, I would attend meetings in June to start discussing a keynote speech for late September. These set-piece orations can make or break party leaders, though typically they highlight existing strengths or weaknesses—as was the case this year.

Labour remains marginally ahead in polls, yet its conference displayed a nervous party, focused on its core voters and struggling to find coherent economic policies. Left-leaning Labour leader Ed Miliband, fond of wonkish speeches about reshaping capitalism, has failed to convince the public that he is fit to run the country. This was underscored by his moment in the spotlight: Speaking from memory, he forgot sections on the deficit and immigration—two of Labour’s most vulnerable issues. The mishap sparked debate over his hold on the leadership eight months before polling.

The Tories have a strong economic story, currently overseeing the fastest growth of any developed nation. In David Cameron they have a leader more popular than the party; he kickstarted his election campaign by promising tax cuts for lower- and middle-income earners. Yet the Tories continue to be seen as the party of the rich and dogged by distrust on public services—especially over the all-important National Health Service, which remains strangely sanctified despite evident flaws. The party is also deeply unpopular among ethnic minorities, an increasingly important slice of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been crushed by their coalition experience, slumping from winning 23% of the vote in 2010 to only 6% in some recent polls. Their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, is widely unpopular, with nearly eight in 10 voters saying he is doing a bad job. Yet such are the vagaries of the British political system that most analysts expect the Lib Dems to retain about half of their 57 seats next year.

The next stepping-stone to this strangest of general elections comes on Nov. 20, when another Tory turncoat, Mark Reckless, bids to become Ukip’s second member of Parliament. Polls give him a nine-point lead in his Kent coastal constituency. If Ukip wins again, it gains another big boost, more Tories might defect to save their seats, and longstanding divisions over the European Union could explode into open rebellion against the moderate Mr. Cameron. But if the Tories cling on, confidence can be restored and hard-right rebellion possibly constrained a little longer.

Much of Europe is being buffeted by similar political turmoil. Perhaps it is the inevitable product of the disruptive digital era, encouraging an empowered populace to question traditional institutions. Yet the consequence is that at a time of huge national and global challenges it is impossible to predict whether Britain faces continuation of its Conservative-led coalition, a left-wing and anti-business replacement, or even a full-blown constitutional crisis with the queen unable to find a party leader able to create a working coalition and form a government.

The late Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics. Eight months seems like an eternity.

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