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In an occasionally lazy (check out the comments about the debt that the Tea Party owes to gerrymandering and then read this) and pass-the-smelling-salts piece last week, The Economist contemplated the prospects for the upcoming (May) elections to the European Parliament with little enthusiasm and quite a bit of lordly disdain.

Britain’s (euroskeptic and more) UKIP was grandly dismissed as a collection of “saloon-bar bores.” This week, however, the magazine took a more measured view with a thoughtful piece on how UKIP (“the most disruptive force in British politics”) is building itself up at the local level:

The dilapidated seaside town of Great Yarmouth does not feel like the centre of anything. “We’re literally at the end of the line,” muses Peter Fitzgerald, referring to the single-track railway that runs across the surrounding marshes.

At this point, please let pause for a nostalgia moment. I lived around there for about five years during my early childhood. Good times.

Anyhoo:

 … As well as running Great Yarmouth’s army-surplus shop, [Peter Fitzgerald] is an activist in the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP). There, and in other quiet coastal towns, Mr Fitzgerald and his like are moulding a lively but disorganised movement into a political machine.

Nearly one million Britons cast ballots for UKIP in the 2010 general election. Proportionately, those votes would have given the party 20 seats in [the Westminster] Parliament. But they were too evenly spread: Britain’s first-past-the-post system kept UKIP from winning a single one. If the party is to become more than a marginal spoiler of Conservative hopes, it needs to build strongholds in a few areas where it stands a decent chance of winning. The east coast is the party’s biggest target.

With four months to go before the local elections, tables in Mr Smith’s office in Great Yarmouth are piled with leaflets and voter data. Annotated maps line the walls. Mr Smith’s nerdy interest in campaign techniques, statistics and the minutiae of local planning disputes makes him easy to mistake for a Liberal Democrat politician. Though UKIP is politically distant from that Europhile, socially liberal party, Mr Smith is proud of the comparison. The Lib Dems, he explains, developed a successful two-part formula for breaking into Parliament. First, get people elected to local government in heartland areas; second, concentrate resources.

Winning local council seats is a springboard to Westminster. It provides a party with campaigners, makes it more visible in an area and enables parliamentary candidates to understand local issues. Local victories also give UKIP the chance to show prospective supporters and donors that it can win elections. In Great Yarmouth—and nationally—the Tories insist that voting for UKIP splits the conservative vote, benefiting the Labour Party. Mr Smith retorts that, because UKIP came first in the town last year, it would be more accurate to label the Tories vote-splitters. He says local membership has grown from 20 to around 100—enough to mount a serious general-election campaign.

He is right about that.

As The Economist correctly notes, UKIP has a long way to go in terms of its organization and, indeed, in developing a more coherently structured set of policies. This weakness, however, is in no small part attributable to the spontaneity that is a major part of this insurgent party’s strength. To preserve that spontaneity while attempting a move to the big leagues may be the greatest challenge that UKIP faces, something that makes it interesting to see this report from the Huffington Post today:

Five of Ukip’s MEPs will not stand for re-election in May as leader Nigel Farage launches a clearout of “extremist, nasty or barmy” views from the party ahead of the polls. In an interview with the Sun on Sunday, Mr Farage said new criteria to assess the performance of his party’s 13 members of the European Parliament had led to changes.

“Some have been pushed and some have jumped,” he said.

All 1,818 candidates running for the eurosceptic party are being vetted, Mr Farage said, while insisting that “of all the candidates we fielded, only about half a dozen have caused us any embarrassment”.

Meanwhile, the Independent has details of a new poll:

The UK Independence Party is the most favourably regarded of all the main parties, according to a ComRes opinion poll exclusive to tomorrow’s Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror. Although 19 per cent of voters say they would vote for UKIP in a general election, 27 per cent said that they had a “favourable view” of the party – just ahead of the 26 per cent who are favourable to the Labour Party, 25 per cent to the Conservative Party and 14 per cent to the Liberal Democrats.

If nothing else, those numbers are — for the Tories — the stuff of nightmares. Never mind about the European elections, they signal a catastrophe for David Cameron in next year’s general election. 



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