Since Friday morning’s results, a number of conservative activists, from ministers and backbenchers to journalists and think tankers, have attempted to proclaim the one true solution to dealing with Thursday’s supposed UKIP ‘earthquake’. Naturally, all these solutions differ widely, from moving an In/Out referendum forward to 2016, to agreeing some form of electoral pact for the General Election, to the sacking of Party Chairman Grant Shapps. If anything, the last few days seem to have been little more than a shouting match, with every arm-chair Tory leader attempting to demonstrate how their vision for the party is the only one which can possibly deliver Mr Cameron to Downing Street next year.
The problem with all of these proposed solutions is that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of UKIP’s support base. They appear, in the words of Nigel Farage himself, to assume ‘that every single UKIP voter is a retired half Colonel living on the edge of Salisbury Plain’. As such, so many of these proposed solutions assume that the principles and policies of the Conservative party already broadly connect with UKIP voters, and that with a few minor tweaks around the edges, can be changed to incorporate this new wave of purple voters.
In contrast to the mainstream view, according to Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (as laid out in their recent release Revolt on the Right), UKIP voters tend to have little formal education, identify as working class, and are likely to soon be retiring (if they have not done so already). They are the people who lost their jobs under Thatcher, who feel they’ve were hindered from finding new ones because of immigration under Blair, have then been hit badly by the Great Recession, and now find themselves struggling under the fiscally conservative policies of the Coalition. In essence, UKIP voters feel let down and left-behind by modern British politics.
It’s this protest element which makes UKIP quite so strong. They don’t oppose the European Union and mass migration because of some academic allegiance to nationalistic concepts. They don’t oppose HS2 because they fear it will inflict irrevocable damage to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Nor do they oppose Same-Sex Marriage because they are raving homophobes who believe it brought January’s floods. Nor oppose wind-farms because they believe the subsidies to be waste of public money which could better be invested in more long-term and efficient means of energy generation.
Theses white, working class, economically insecure individuals oppose all these initiatives as indicative of a new metropolitan ruling class which they simply believe does not represent their views or interests. And despite being a public schooled banker who’s spent nearly half of his life in professional politics, Nigel Farage can connect to these people in a way Cameron, Miliband and Clegg can only dream of.
The tweaking of a few Conservative policies simply won’t be enough to win these voters back. UKIP represents a powerful force for change in Britain’s political culture, and the work of a few focus groups, spin doctors and campaign managers may ultimately be unable to pacify it.