Take the liberal fight to UKIP

5 May


Much has been written about the strong UKIP performance in the county council elections. On some level, it should not be a surprise that a sizeable chunk of the electorate will use a populist party with a reasonably competent leader to exercise a protest vote. We are in the fifth year of economic slowdown, two of the established parties are making tough decisions on deficit reduction in Government, and the poorly-led, principal opposition party is struggling to rebuild trust with the British electorate after a long period in office. 

Look around Europe and you will find plenty of similar examples of surges in support for populist (e.g. Five Star MoVement in Italy), single issue (e.g Pirate Party in Germany and elsewhere) and out-and-out extremist parties (e.g. Golden Dawn in Greece). While I disagree with Nigel Farage on almost everything, we should note with relief that some of these outfits are considerably more unpalatable than UKIP.

The Liberal Democrats in particular should not panic. Many of UKIP’s voters are exercising a classic mid-term protest, and will revert to a more traditional choice between the parties of Government (which may include the Lib Dems for the first time next time) in a general election. Some others would not touch the Lib Dems with a barge pole in any election, because UKIP are giving a voice to people who hold frankly illiberal views.

The real question is the extent to which UKIP are evolving from a fringe, single-issue party focused almost exclusively on Europe and the European elections, into a populist party largely, but not exclusively, on the right of the political spectrum competing seriously in all elections. And if so, what does that mean for the other parties, and how should they respond?

UKIP have successfully broadened their angry message, emphasising immigration as much as Europe (although they intertwine) which in turn links to housing and economic insecurity. They are also campaigning on more specific issues which resonate with different but overlapping demographics, including opposition to wind-farms, High Speed 2 and gay marriage. While this does not amount to an agenda for Government (but hey Labour don’t have one either) it clearly has the potential to attract a slice of the general election electorate (perhaps around 10%).

It should not be taken as a given that they will pull this off.  The political and organisational challenges, from managing difficult and ambitious personalities to building effective campaigning organisations at the local level, are immense, as is apparent from the history of the SDP, and of course the electoral system makes life even harder for a fourth party.

But if UKIP do manage to sustain their recent success, how should the Lib Dems react? Here are my suggestions:

  • Have a fight about liberal values – If UKIP further develop their populist, illiberal agenda then we should actively and noisily tackle that head on. They are climate change deniers, we are reducing carbon emissions. We favour equal marriage, they don’t. We welcome people to Britain who create jobs, they would shut the door. They look backwards, we look forwards. A challenge faced by the Liberal Democrats in general, and Nick Clegg in particular, is the lack of distinction in the public mind between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. UKIP’s rise could help define our party as the polar opposites. It will also exacerbate the tensions within the Conservative party between the modernisers and the traditionalists if they are been pulled in opposite directions. Which is no bad thing.
  • Embrace an in/out referendum on the EU – Taking the fight to UKIP should include engaging in their core argument about Britain’s future in Europe. Withdrawing from Europe would lead to the loss of UK jobs and make it harder to catch and convict cross-border criminals. Lets have bold clear messages like this for next year’s European elections but also lets make clear we are not afraid to take on UKIP and half of the Tories in an in/out referendum. There are no votes in blocking a referendum. If we do that, we will provide a gift for Cameron and UKIP to attack the Lib Dems.
  • Get serious about social housing – UKIP’s negative message on immigration is resonating partly because lower income families have limited access to social housing, which breeds resentment and frustration. I will do another blog post about this later, but it’s an issue that Lib Dems need to take more seriously and develop some clear pledges. We need to get there before Labour, who may fear the loss of some of their traditional voters to UKIP if they don’t make housing a higher priority.

Most of all, Lib Dems need to keep working at the local level. As has been pointed out by the party and recognised by independent election experts, the results on Thursday were much better in the parts of the country where we have sitting MPs and active local parties. We can only connect to people’s concerns if we are on their doorstep all year round, listening and acting. I doubt UKIP’s new councillors will do that, so this is the best way for Lib Dems on the ground to respond.


One Response to “Take the liberal fight to UKIP”

  1. Dean Crofts May 6, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    Not sure I agree that most UKIP voters are exercising a mid term protest. Add the UKIP and conservative vote together and you have a massive majority – something we should all be aware of.
    The current economic circumstances and strength of feeling into the causes are un precedented since the Great Depression.

    The Liberal Democrats should be the alternative and only party for people to vote as we have never been in government with a majority since Lloyd George. Therefore our strongest election message should be 90 years plus of Labour/Conservative government does not work.

    People want to be engaged in issues that affect them. We should champion our values on localism, decision making in the community, the environment, liberal regulation of economic affairs, re build projects in housing, making the tax system fairer, making welfare fairer, letting people have access to free movement and building a more balanced relationship with Europe.

    All of these are interlinked to solve the reasons why people have voted UKIP.

    We need Europe for defence, international crime, international affairs and cross border trading. We also need national parliaments everywhere to have free and liberal powers to make legislation for communities to suit communities as a result of community engagement and localism.

    That is what Lib Dems are good at. Getting local views, supporting local views and putting them into action. This is what will win Lib Dems votes. Not as a party that supports a centralist policy making clique in Westminster, Brussels or anywhere else.

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