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Review of "Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain" by

Summary

19 December 2014 Updated 29 January 2015

The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has probably been the most important political phenomenon for decades.

While many simply see UKIP as part of the Conservative Party “in exile”, this book looks at the facts in detail regarding who supports UKIP, and why, and comes up with a very different picture.

About the book

The Paddy Power Political Book Awards

On 28 January 2015 this book won the main prize and £10,000 sponsored by Lord Ashcroft in the Political Book of the Year category. I think this is well deserved.

This book was published in the spring of 2014. It is a very easy to read 300 page paperback.

The authors

Robert Ford is Senior Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. He tweets as @RobFordMancs

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He tweets as @GoodwinMJ

Chapter titles

The structure of the book is as follows:

Preface
Introduction

  1. A single-issue pressure group
  2. Becoming a serious contender
  3. Origins: a long time coming
  4. The social roots of the revolt
  5. The motive for rebelling
  6. Overcoming the barriers to entry
  7. The paradoxes and potential of UKIP’s revolt

Appendix: data and methods: analysing UKIP’s voters

In this short review it is not feasible to summarise the rich and detailed historical and analytical information presented by the authors. However I have included some extracts below which provide a flavour of the writing style and also contain some of the key messages.

Preface

The authors introduce the book as follows:

“This book is about one of the most successful challenges to the established political parties in modern British history. Under their charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are leading a radical revolt against the established political parties, which is guided by their Eurosceptic beliefs and wrapped heavily in the radical right-wing themes of populism and opposition to immigration. Their revolt began slowly in the 1990s, under a long period of Conservative Party rule, gathered pace between 1997 and 2010 under three successive Labour governments and, since then, has achieved historically unprecedented gains under a Conservative-led coalition government.”

Introduction

The authors begin by explaining how difficult it is to break into British party politics.

“This is the story of the most significant new British political party in a generation. New parties are founded all the time, but most are tiny clusters of discontents bound together by a single, marginal issue. Most wither and die very quickly. Others, like the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, have changed the face of politics in their nations, but by itsnature their appeal is geographically limited; they could not change the balance of power in Britain as a whole, nor did they aim to do so. This has left the commanding heights of British politics dominated by only three political parties – the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats – whose electoral ancestors started taking seats at Westminster a century or more ago. Their individual fortunes may have ebbed and flowed from one election to the next, but together they have reigned supreme.”

The authors go on to reminders of the only previous new force to emerge.

“Rising in the 1980s, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) launched one of the most serious assaults against the main parties in recent British history, attracting well over 7 million voters at the general elections in 1983 and 1987. As the academic Ivor Crewe noted at the time: ‘such an eruption of third-party support is unprecedented; for speed, strength and duration there has been nothing to match it since Britain’s modern party system emerged in the 1920s.’ Yet this earlier revolt was the product of a split at the summit of British politics, not a new movement emerging from below: the SDP had been founded by Westminster insiders – four high-profile and experienced labour politicians, who had all served in the cabinet of the previous Labour government. Generations of British voters have lived their entire lives without ever seeing the partisan status quo challenged from the grassroots. In 2013, that picture finally changed. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) establish the first new movement with national reach since the emergence of the Labour Party at the end of the nineteenth century.”

The authors go on to explain how UKIP was founded in 1993 by a history lecturer at the London School of economics, Alan Sked, and its difficult time in the first 10 years where it achieved tiny percentages of the vote in UK elections while doing somewhat better in elections for the European Parliament.

UKIP is often spoken of in similar terms to the British National Party (BNP). The authors point out how inaccurate this is.

“UKIP and the BNP are very different types of parties. Whereas UKIP are broadly at ease with the global free market, the BNP demand economic protectionism and the renationalisation of some industries. Whereas UKIP publicly claim to be libertarians who want to protect individuals from the state, the BNP advocate an array of authoritarian policies. Whereas the BNP subscribe to an ‘ethnic’ concept of nationalism, defining Britishness on the basis of race and ancestry, UKIP present themselves as a non-racist and non-sectarian party who are ‘civic’ nationalists, arguing that their party is ‘open and inclusive to anyone who wishes to identify with Britain, regardless of ethnic or religious background. We reject the “blood and soil” ethnic nationalism of extremist parties.’ These two parties also build on strikingly different traditions; whereas UKIP are rooted in a politically legitimate tradition of British Euroscepticism, the BNP originates in a neo-Nazi and anti-democratic tradition, and openly argues that the British national community is closed to immigrants and ethnic minorities.”

A single-issue pressure group

In this chapter the authors give more details of the early history of UKIP and the competition it faced from other Eurosceptics such as Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party which was extremely well resourced in comparison with UKIP.

It helps to understand this history to put the present-day UKIP into context.

Becoming a serious contender

This chapter looks at the history over the period from roughly 2004 to 2010. During this time much of the competition that UKIP faced for votes came from the BNP.

Origins: a long time coming

This chapter looks at the underlying changes in society which created the opportunity for UKIP.

“In this chapter, we look at how long-term social and political trends in Britain over the past 50 years created demand for UKIP’s radical right revolt. We will answer two questions. First, how has British society changed over recent decades to create room for a party like UKIP? Is this a story about a population that has become increasingly Eurosceptic over the years, or which has steadily lost faith in established politics? Or is the story more nuanced, and about how wider trends have impacted on specific groups in society, only rendering some of them receptive to the appeals of the radical right? Second, how have the two main parties that dominate British politics contributed to this process? Has room for UKIP been created simply by David Cameron’s more socially liberal brand of Conservatism, as many claim, or have deeper changes in party competition played a role?

So far, we have charted the evolution of UKIP from their origins as an anti-EU pressure group into a radical right party that is determined to become a major political force. A key element driving this strategy has been UKIP’s own analysis of how changes in British society have impacted on particular social groups. In the early years, this led the party to focus on appealing to middle-class, Southern and Eurosceptic Conservatives, who were angry after the Maastricht Treaty and felt disconnected from their natural political home. UKIP saw themselves as a pressure group, who existed to convert the Conservative Party to hard Euroscepticism. This strategy changed after 2009, when the party began appealing to disadvantaged voters, including those from traditionally Labour voting groups; white, working-class people whose traditional loyalty to the centre-left had eroded, and who stayed at home on election days or flirted with the extreme right BNP. To attract these voters, UKIP began fusing their hard Eurosceptic message with stronger nationalist, anti-elite and anti-immigration elements in the hope of taking votes from both Labour and working-class Tories, who once backed the assertive nationalism and traditional values of Margaret Thatcher, but who since 2005 have been less receptive to Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism.”

The authors explain that this strategic shift was particularly attributable to the activist Paul Nuttall.

“The Labour voters Nuttall was urging his party to target were very different to the middle-class, socially liberal and Southern voters who had turned to Blair’s rebranded ‘New Labour’ in the late 1990s. They were, he argued, less likely to vote, more hard-line on crime and punishment (‘the hang ‘em and flog ‘em types’), less concerned about ‘new left’ issues like multiculturalism, human rights or climate change and instinctively opposed to the EU (‘they don’t like foreigners telling them what to do’, explained Nuttall). But he also highlighted a powerful new issue, where New Labour’s action in government had enraged their traditional supporters to such an extent that many were now questioning their political loyalties: immigration.”

An important feature which makes this book so valuable is the use of high-quality data.

“We begin by examining the social changes which have shaped the British electorate over the past fifty years, the period for which we have reliable data. We make use of two long-running and well-respected academic surveys: the British Election Studies, which were started by David Butler and Donald Stokes in 1964 and have surveyed the British public immediately after every subsequent general election; and the British Social Attitudes surveys, which have run almost every year since 1983. These long-running surveys provide us with an invaluable record of the changing circumstances, attitudes and priorities of the British public. In what follows, we use these data to chart the long-term changes in British society, the values and attitudes of different social groups towards key issues, and the positioning of the two main parties, all of which – as we will explain – have created ‘room on the right’ for UKIP’s revolt.

A blue-collar revolt: why Europe’s working class defected to the radical right

Britain’s radical right revolt is a late-starter. Writing in 1993, the year UKIP were founded, the academic Hans-Georg Betz noted how radical right parties in Europe were already becoming serious national competitors. In fact, since the 1980s insurgent parties like the Freedom Party of Austria, National Front in France, Flemish Blok in Belgium and the Progress Parties in Denmark and Norway had rallied large numbers of voters by fusing nationalist and anti-establishment appeals with strong opposition to immigration and, increasingly, the EU. For Betz, one of the most striking aspects of their support was its concentration among poorer, working-class voters who had once been loyal social democrats. The modern radical right, he noted, was not drawing in voters from across society but poaching support from the bottom rungs.

After two decades of steady growth for Europe’s radical right, in 2013 Betz returned to examine these parties again. He found even stronger support among poorer, blue-collar workers than before. In fact, working-class voters had proven so receptive to the radical right that Betz describe these parties as ‘today’s new working-class parties’. Their success, he argued, owed much to their ability to seduce what the French describe as the couches populaires: blue-collar workers and lower-level employees who in earlier years had formed the traditional left’s base. There were numerous examples. In France, opinion polls in 2012 revealed Marine Le Pen as the preferred Presidential candidate of the French working class. In Austria, the Freedom Party recruited one in four working-class voters. In Italy, the Northern League made advances among trade union members and in ‘red territory’ held by the left, and in Denmark the People’s Party emerged as the most clearly defined working-class party.

Attempting to explain the shift, Betz pointed to wider social changes, but also to changes in the strategies of the established political parties. The onset of a post-industrial economy that prioritised white-collar skills, training and professional qualifications had given blue-collar workers few opportunities to progress and left them feeling isolated, insecure, pessimistic about the future and resentful towards the established political class. The decline of heavy industries that were once at the centre of local communities compounded these effects. Then, the onset of mass immigration and rising ethnic diversity further enhanced feelings of insecurity and the belief that a once-secure way of life was now under threat. These changes intensified the economic concerns of working-class voters, and coincided with the rise of a new politically and socially dominant middle-class who were university-educated, skilled, financially secure and able to adapt and prosper in the new social climate.

The rise of the middle class and marginalisation of blue-collar workers presented a dilemma to the centre-left, one that was summarised by Adam Przeworski in his classic study, Capitalism and Social Democracy. Przeworski noted that manual workers, the group centre-left parties were founded to represent, were shrinking as a group across Europe, meaning social democrats could no longer win elections by appealing to these workers alone. The dilemma facing the traditional left was clear: either they maintain their pure appeal to workers and risk becoming politically marginal, or they appeal to the rising middle classes but risk alienating their traditional working-class base. Most (but not all) European centre-left parties opted for the latter.”

The authors go on to look at economic change in the UK and the decline of Britain’s white working class.

“Over the past few decades Britain has experienced dramatic changes in its social structure. White working-class groups who were once large enough to decide elections have shrunk relentlessly, a trend that we chart in figure 3.1 [This shows the share of the total sample which is working class; a trade union member; a council tenant; a person having no qualifications. All of these categories fall steadily from 1964 to 2009.] and which is well documented in studies of British politics. At the time of Labour’s 1964 general election victory under Harold Wilson, almost half of the workforce did blue-collar work, over 70% of voters had no formal educational qualifications, 40% of the workforce belong to a trade union, and 30% lived in council houses. It was impossible for leaders of the two main parties to ignore such large groups of voters.

When ‘New’ Labour and Tony Blair were elected thirty-three years later, however, their landslide win came from a very different electorate. Less than one in three workers toiled in working-class jobs, down nearly 20 percentage points from Wilson’s time. The proportion holding trade union members’ cards had dwindled to just over 20%, down 10 percentage points from 1964, though this understates the true level of change, as the unions of Blair’s era were dominated by white-collar, public sector workers such as teachers and nurses. The mighty industrial unions of Wilson’s time – armies of miners, steelworkers and machinists, whose fiery leaders could bring down governments – were no more. Nor were the voters of Blair’s era dependent on the state for a roof over their heads: the share of the electorate renting their homes from the council in 1997 was 14%, half the level seen in 1964. The voters of Blair’s Britain were also more educated than those who had gone to the polls to elect Wilson; only about half of those who were interviewed in 1997 had left school without any qualifications, compared to 7 in 10 in 1964. In the years since New Labour swept to power, all of these trends have continued. The working class and low education groups of voters have continued to shrink, and their electoral significance has faded with their numbers. By 2012, when UKIP were surging in the polls, the share of the labour force doing blue-collar work was down to 29%; only 18% of workers belonged to a trade union; only 1 voter in 10 rented their home from the local council; and just 36% of voters had no formal educational qualifications, half the level in Wilson’s time.”

The authors point out that the long-term decline of the working classes is mirrored by the steady rise of the middle classes to dominance. The change in the electorate is particularly stark if one looks at cohorts.

“Among those born before 1931, the unqualified outnumber university graduates 12 to 1; but among the cohort born after 1975, graduates outnumber the unqualified by more than 3 to 1. In fifty years, therefore, Britain has been transformed from a society where poorly skilled and blue-collar voters decided elections, to one where such voters have become spectators in electoral battles for the educated middle-class vote.”

The authors go on to explain how these economic and educational changes have also changed social values.

“The rise of the university-educated middle-class has done more than just transform Britain’s economic structure. It has changed the values that dominate in British society. As sociologists such as Ronald Inglehart have shown, growing prosperity and rising education levels have changed the social goals that voters prioritise. The voters of the 1950s and 1960s, most of whom grew up amidst economic depression and war, prized ‘material’ values, like basic economic security and social stability. In sharp contrast, their children and grandchildren take such things for granted and, instead, focus on ‘postmaterial’ values, like liberty, human rights and environmental protection. The same underlying social dynamics have also sparked other shifts in values. Younger voters, who have grown up and prospered in a more mobile and interconnected world, tend to have weaker attachments to their nation of birth, a thinner and more instrumental sense of what national identity means, a greater openness to immigration, and a greater acceptance of ethnic diversity. In politics, they also tend to be more supportive of transnational institutions, including the EU. These shifts are related to class as well as age – it is the middle-class professionals who benefit most from Britain’s integration into the global economy, and who embrace the cosmopolitan and postmaterial values associated with it. The groups who have been left behind economically over the past thirty years tend to have very different views to the rising middle classes on all of the core elements of the radical right’s ideological appeal – Euroscepticism, nationalism, opposition to immigration and populism – and these differences have grown over time.”

The social roots of the revolt

The authors point out that there are competing interpretations about where UKIP’s support is coming from. They cite many conservative commentators and journalists who regard UKIP as “the Conservative Party in exile.” However they point out that a growing proportion of UKIP’s vote is coming from working-class voters, many of whom once backed Labour.

“In this chapter, we delve into the data to build a social profile of UKIP support, focusing on four questions. First, does UKIP’s revolt have a distinctive social base and, if so, what does this look like? Second, has the party rallied similar types of voters as the BNP, or have they recruited citizens from different walks of life? Third, has the overall picture of support for UKIP remained static or changed over time as they have grown? Fourth, what is the political background of UKIP support and how is this changing? To answer these questions we make use of the most extensive dataset on UKIP supporters currently available.”

After looking at the data, the authors write:

"Contrary to those who argue that UKIP’s voters are middle-class Tories, we actually find that their base is more working-class than that of any of the main parties. Blue-collar UKIP voters outnumber their white-collar counterparts by a large margin: 42% of these voters work in blue-collar jobs or do not work at all, while a smaller percentage of 30% hold professional middle-class jobs. This picture is reversed in the main parties where the middle classes dominate: 44% of Conservative supporters are middle-class, and 28% are working-class; there is a similar 43 – 27 division among supporters of the Liberal Democrats; while for Labour, historically the party for workers, the middle classes have a narrow 36 – 35 lead. The only other party showing a similar pattern of working-class dominance is the BNP: 55% of their supporters are blue-collar, with only 22% are middle-class professionals.”

The data for education show the same pattern:

“We find a similar pattern when we look at education. University education has now expanded to the point where graduates are the largest group in the electoral coalitions of all the mainstream parties: 40% of Labour and Conservative voters are graduates, as are more than half of Liberal Democrat and Green voters. The radical right, however, is very different. UKIP’s coalition is dominated by those who left school at the earliest opportunity: 55% of their voters left school at 16 or earlier, while only 24% attended university. BNP support has a similar profile: 62% of their voters left school at 16 or earlier, while less than 1 in 5 went to university. Education has become even more important to social and economic success in modern Britain, but UKIP, and before them the BNP, appeal most strongly to those who lack the qualifications that provide a vital passport to social mobility. These differences in support by education may also reflect differences in social attitudes. Education, particularly at the university level, is associated with a more liberal and tolerant outlook towards minorities, including immigrants, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. UKIP, and before them the BNP, may be appealing most strongly to the least educated in society, as they are also the most likely to share the social values associated with these parties.”

The authors point out that there is also a significant gender gap:

“Across Europe, support for radical right revolts also shows a clear ‘gender gap’, with support typically splitting 60% male and 40% female. Both British radical right parties show the same tendency: UKIP’s electorate is 57% male while the BNP’s is even more male-dominated (64%).”

There is also a significant difference in age profile.

“Looking at the main parties, we find that the age distribution of their supporters broadly mirrors that of British society, although the Conservatives have a few more pensioners than average, the Liberal Democrats have a few more young people, and Labour have a few more middle-aged supporters. UKIP, however, are leading a grey revolt: 57% of their supporters are over the age of 54, while just over 1 in 10 are under 35. This elderly base has already attracted attention, including from Farage, who recognises it is a problem for his party: ‘we are not connecting with disaffected youth. There are one million 16 – 24 year olds out of work. They are not all lazy and useless. A lot of them are extremely angry about the way things are and we are not reaching them.…’

What explains the dominance of grey-haired voters among UKIP’s support? Three factors may play a role here: wider changes in society; changes in the attitudes of citizens; and the timing of Britain’s entry into the EU. Over the years, Britain has steadily become more educated, middle-class and ethnically and culturally diverse, as we saw in Chapter 3. Today, younger Britons are less likely than their parents and grandparents to have left school early or to work in a blue-collar job, and more likely to attend university and do professional, middle-class work. Affluent democracies like Britain have also seen a ‘silent revolution’ in the social values of their citizens, which are strongly influenced by the conditions citizens encounter as they are growing up. Whereas older voters who grew up in more turbulent times tend to prize material security and social stability, younger voters who have grown up in a wealthier, more diverse, and, albeit with some notable disruption since 2008, more economically secure context, tend to focus on ‘post-material’ values, such as individual freedom and universal rights. British researchers have shown how younger generations are more socially liberal, more accepting of ethnic diversity and of homosexuality, less opposed to immigration and less likely to subscribe to ethnic nationalist beliefs. These shifts in values have been further encouraged by the spread of education, rising ethnic diversity and personal mobility across borders. The overall pattern of values in British society is one of large generational divides, and the overall pattern of change is a slow but steady move in a cosmopolitan, socially liberal direction, as more conservative older generations die off and are replaced by more socially liberal, cosmopolitan successors.

Each of the main parties in Britain have recognised the direction of travel, and adopted more socially liberal policies. However, UKIP’s position on a range of issues – their strident nationalism, strong opposition to immigration and gay marriage, and criticism of multicultural policies that aim to support minorities – place the party firmly on the grey side of this generational divide. UKIP support is predominantly old because the party reflects the values and outlook of older voters: socially conservative; threatened by immigration; suspicious of diversity; attached to traditional, material values; and angry about the perceived breakdown of respect for authority and institutions. This is a worldview that was mainstream when UKIP’s voters were younger, but has gradually become marginalised as they have aged and the values of their more liberal children and grandchildren have become the new mainstream.”

The authors also look at ethnicity.

“A final characteristic worth exploring is ethnicity. The differences here are more subtle, as the ethnic minority sample in our data set is quite small. Still, all of the main parties have more ethnically diverse electorates than UKIP. Labour have traditionally won a large majority of the votes from all minority ethnic groups, which is reflected in our sample: 3.7% of their supporters are non-white, a much higher proportion than the other mainstream parties. Meanwhile, 1.7% of Liberal Democrat supporters in our sample were non-white and 1.1% of Conservative supporters. The Conservative Party’s struggles to recruit ethnic minority voters are well documented. But these minority voters find the radical right UKIP, and the extreme right BNP, even less appealing. Only 0.4% of the UKIP electorate is non-white – or one supporter out of every 250 – a lower figure than even the BNP and well below the 2% average across our whole sample. Although UKIP very publicly rejects the overt racism of the extreme right, they have advocated ideas that are likely to put off ethnic minority voters, such as calls to remove benefits for migrants, end multicultural policies, prohibit the wearing of religious dress and end international aid for what one UKIP MEP describes as ‘bongo bongo land’. That UKIP recognise and often mobilise public resentments of immigration and ethnic minorities among the white majority goes some way to explaining why non-white voters are steering well clear of them.”

The authors summarise their conclusions:

“We see, then, how UKIP’s support has a very clear social profile, more so than any of the mainstream parties. Their electoral base is old, male, working-class, white and less educated, much like the BNP’s.”

The authors go on to look at voting patterns in detail to see where UKIP voters have come from.

The motive for rebelling

In this chapter the authors look in more detail at the motives leading people to vote for UKIP.

Overcoming the barriers to entry

The U.K.’s first past the post electoral system makes life very difficult for minority parties. For example, in 1983 almost 8 million people voted for the SDP/Liberal alliance but they achieved only 23 seats whereas Labour received 8.5 million votes, only 500,000 more, but won 209 seats.

Accordingly, UKIP is learning to focus its campaigning effort on constituencies where it is most likely to win. The authors discuss a number of those constituencies specifically.

The paradoxes and potential of UKIP’s revolt

In this final chapter, the authors step back to look at UKIP in the round. In particular they look at the dilemmas for the main parties.

“For the Conservatives, the key strategic dilemma is how far to take their efforts to win back support lost to the rebels. As we saw in Chapter 5, since 2010 UKIP’s rebellion has taken more votes from citizens who backed Cameron’s party at that general election than from any other party. Winning an electoral majority, or even emerging as the largest party in a hung Parliament, will be very difficult for the Conservatives unless they can win at least some of these rebels back. Yet the other attributes of UKIP voters – their blue-collar social backgrounds, economic struggles, negative view of British politics and politicians, the low marks they give the Conservatives on their key issues of immigration and the financial crisis, and their strongly negative views of David Cameron – will make this a very tough task. The Conservatives would have to offer a truly radical policy shift to overcome these obstacles and win back significant UKIP support. Yet a radical shift on Europe and immigration, or the replacement of Cameron with a new, more UKIP-friendly leader, would also risk alienating the more moderate voters the Conservatives have worked so hard to win over and who are also essential to an electoral victory. The Conservatives cannot afford to lose voters to UKIP, but they may not be able to afford winning them back, either.

The dilemma Labour face is between short-term and long-term strategy. In the short term, the strong temptation for Labour will be to sit back and let UKIP divide the Conservative vote at the next general election, thereby lowering the bar for their own victory and a return to power. Some Labour commentators have taken pleasure in the irony of an electoral split undoing the right in the same way as the left has been undone many times in the past. Yet such a ‘laissez faire’ approach to UKIP comes with serious longer-term risks. As we saw in Chapters 3 and 4, the UKIP vote comes primarily from ‘left behind’ social groups who were once solidly Labour. UKIP have driven a wedge between the struggling, blue-collar ‘Old Left’ who once supported Labour on economic grounds, and the educated, white-collar ‘New Left’ who often back them on the basis of social values. If they allow UKIP to become established as part of the mainstream political conversation, either with MPs at Westminster or a strong presence in Labour heartlands, the centre-left risks making that divide permanent. It will be much harder for Ed Miliband and his party to win back working-class voters with Ukippers running continuous and high-profile campaigns on Europe, immigration and traditional British values. Labour also need to remember that UKIP’s rise has been driven as much by populist hostility to the political establishment as by ideology or policy. This does not hurt them much at present, as they are in opposition and therefore not the main focus of anti-system feeling. If they were to win the next election, they would find UKIP’s populist barbs directed at them. A failure to combat UKIP before 2015 will result in a stronger populist opponent to future Labour governments.

For the Liberal Democrats, the key problem is how to respond to a party that has stolen their political clothes. Much of the Liberal Democrats’ success over the past 20 years has come from being a permanent opposition party, able to mobilise voters discontented with the government of the day but unwilling to consider the main opposition party. In the 1990s they could pick up long-time Conservative voters who were disheartened by the corruption and weak leadership of the Major administration, but still unwilling to vote Labour, as well as Labour voters looking for the best local means of dislodging Conservative incumbent MPs. In the 2000s, the Liberal Democrats could win over Labour left-wingers alienated by the centrism of Tony Blair, as well as voters of all political persuasions who opposed Blair’s war in Iraq (which they were the only major party to oppose). The Liberal Democrats harnessed discontent with the government of the day through intensive, locally focused campaigns, building a presence in local government and seeking to pick seats off in anti-incumbent by-elections.

After entering government for the first time in 70 years after the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats now find themselves victims of their own success, as UKIP turn their old strategy against them. They can no longer market themselves as the choice for voters ‘sick of the old politics’ when they are now clearly part of the ‘old politics’ they once railed against. UKIP have appropriated the anti-incumbent mantle and adopted the Liberal Democrats’ campaigning strategy. It is now purple rosettes, not gold ones, which flood into the nation’s boroughs and shires as local elections approach, and UKIP candidates whom incumbent parties fear as a lightning rod for anti-government sentiment at Westminster by-elections. By becoming a party of government, the Liberal Democrats have thus rendered ineffective the principal strategy they have used to get there. The question posed by UKIP’s insurgency is this: how can a small party, without a clearly defined social base, survive when the permanent opposition political strategy it relied upon is no longer available? Can the Liberal Democrats ever hope to credibly campaign again as a party of opposition to ‘politics as usual’ after their five-year spell in coalition? And if they cannot, how long can they hope to compete for the kind of discontented voters who once backed them and are now considering a vote for Nigel Farage’s rebels instead?”

Concluding comments

It is impossible to recommend this book too highly. It is very easy to read and extremely well grounded in hard data. The authors have also had excellent access to the key players for interview purposes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the politics of our country.

Kindle edition above

 

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