UKIP’s success is a symptom of a fundamental change in UK politics

Last week’s local election results produced some curious reactions from those speaking on behalf of the main three parties in response to UKIP’s meteoric performance.  There was an underlying confusion that I’ve rarely seen before.  The usual game where at least one of them comes out smiling, whilst the other two lick their wounds and make their excuses went out of the window.  Even Labour who gained 291 councillors only managed to make amends for their disastrous showing at the same set of elections in 2009 where they lost exactly the same number of seats.  There was a struggle to make sense of UKIP’s achievements and consider what the best response should be.  Shadow deputy prime minister, Harriet Harman, talked about it being a ‘wake-up call’ for the main parties, but the reaction was one of someone waking up from a bad dream and fuzzily trying to work out if it had been real or not, rather than any coherent reaction.

The last time that something along these lines happened was in 1989 when backing for the Green Party surged to 15% of the votes in the European elections.  This wasn’t sustained and public support quickly fizzled to just 0.51% at the 1992 general election.  The main parties will probably be hoping that something similar will happen with UKIP in 2015 at the next general election.  However, having read a good number of post-election articles over the weekend, the consensus from commentators is that UKIP’s result is unlikely to be a flash in the pan.

My interpretation of the situation is that we are moving into a new phase in British politics where the relationship between voters and politicians is fundamentally changing.  This development has been branded as ‘post-liberalism’ and UKIP are riding on the wave of this sea-change of public opinion.

Apologies if this now gets a bit academic, but please bear with me.  Much of modern politics has been influenced by the twin ideologies of social and economic liberalism.  From the 1960s onward, the liberal left has won much of the the social and cultural argument and since the 1980s,  the liberal right has been winning the political and economic argument. Both forms of liberalism champion unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint.  We can see that these beliefs have been accepted across the political spectrum by the way the main parties have been increasingly drawn towards the centre ground as they progressively embrace both of them.  This liberalism has had its benefits , but there has been a cost; the financial markets through deregulation have badly overheated and a lack of self-control ultimately led to the financial crisis we are now having to deal with.  Personal debt has also spiralled.  Social liberalism has eroded communities and a communal sense of morality leaving many of us more concerned about our own happiness and material wealth at the expense of our relationship with others.

Nasty shocks to the system, such as the financial crisis we currently find ourselves in the midst of, often cause us to question what has previously been taken for granted, tolerated or ignored.  The consequences of  a lack of morals and ethics in our financial systems along with excessive government borrowing has had serious and painful consequences.  Politics has increasingly become the domain of the metropolitan, educated elite, who are regularly seen to be out of touch with and lacking empathy with the majority of voters.  The gradual weakening of moral codes as well as the erosion of the social bonds tied up in family, faith and community, have damaged the social fabric of our society.

We are starting to appreciate that things have gone wrong and are not as they should be.  The turning to UKIP by many voters is a symptom of this.  Max Wind-Cowie in a piece for Prospect explains how this has happened:

‘The reason UKIP is a genuine threat to the political establishment, rather than merely to the Conservative party, can be found in its accidental post-liberalism. This emerging school of political thought and practice—which seeks to challenge the assumptions and excesses of both social and economic liberalism—has found something of a testing ground in UKIP.  Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.

‘All three main parties have important lessons to learn from UKIP’s success. A failure to grasp the post-liberal nettle and to confront the profoundly unfair impact of cold-blooded meritocracy could well lead to their slow marginalisation. This doesn’t mean just imitating their policies (which often smack of illiberalism rather than post-liberalism) but it does mean adapting rhetoric and proposals to demonstrate some understanding for the people they are elected to serve.’

Philip Blond, Director of the ResPublica think tank tweeted yesterday:  “We are now in the era of post-liberal politics – UKIP are its negative manifestation we need its positive form”.  The problem as is often the case when a reaction against an -ism leads to a post -ism is that it is not immediately apparent what form the post-ism will take.  As I view it, post-liberalism is still in its infancy, but we see it manifesting in Justin Welby’s recent calls for the creation of regional banks, communities taking responsibility for those locally in need through such activities such as food banks, a continued call from many to see families recognised in the tax system and an increasing belief that rights and responsibilities need to become more balanced within our society whether it be in relation to benefits or the tax receipts of multinational companies.

What I find heartening about much that is associated with post-liberalism is a turning towards values that are decidedly Christian and biblical.  It is an acknowledgement that we are not isolated individuals free to live as we like, but that we inherently live as part of a community (local, national or beyond) where issues of justice and seeking the common good should be valued.

UKIP have been successful because they are offering the taste of a different vision that the main parties are failing to provide.  Even though they are seen as right-wing, they are political outsiders, not readily playing to the traditional left-right political spectrum.  Their policies may be populist, but they have also tapped into an underlying frustration that the public has with our politicians at the moment.  In contrast, the main political parties are struggling to adapt and see that what they are all offering is not meeting what an increasingly large number of people are looking for in their politicians.

This is a time for new visions and for any party that manages to break out of its mould and re-engage effectively with the public, the rewards could potentially be very high.   The recent elections were indeed a wake-up call for all our main parties, but whether any heed the warning signs or not will show whether they have grasped the need for them to adapt and change effectively to respond to the mood of many in our nation.  To ignore it could well turn out to be political suicide.

You can read about post-liberalism in more depth here.

Categories: Elections, Justice, Party politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. Good post and I so hope you are right but – I think you’re guilty of a bit of wishful thinking…
    While your analysis of the last 50 years or so is spot on, I doubt that UKIP are a sign of any sea change .
    You cannot ignore a number of things about UKIP that mean the time was just right for them (and probably will be for a little longer); A “perfect storm” if you will.
    First, the Lib-Dems deal with the Tories means that there is no obvious recipient of a protest vote. Tory voters who wish to give their party a message would hardly vote for the party that many believe is holding Cameron back from bringing in “real” tory policies. Labour voters dissatisfied with Miliband’s performance may feel so betrayed and angered by a supposedly left of centre party percieved to be holding together (but not holding back) a “nasty” bunch of Thatcher wannabes.
    Even some natural Lib-Dem voters feel so let down by the national party that they may have been reluctant to vote for them this time. (I know two local Lib-Dem councillors and I would find it hard to describe just how livid they are with Clegg and the national party – although to be fair, I’m sure they both voted for their own party last week). Given the traditional lib-dem views on immigration, I doubt many will have voted UKIP but some may have abstained.
    Second, although UKIP are not a one issue party, you cannot ignore the concerns of many over immigration. Putting aside whether immigration is a “bad” thing (it is, of course a mixture) and whether there are “too many” immigrants, a sizable group of people believe this – and the mainstream parties have either ignored this view or treated it with contempt (for example Brown’s “bigot” comment before the last election). I do think the mainstream parties have finally worked this out, hence the tougher language from the Labour party let alone the Tories.
    Third, Europe. Labour and the Lib-Dems are seen as strongly pro-europe while I wonder how many people really believe the tories will actually ever offer a referendum.
    Fourth, gay marriage. With all three main parties in favour, where do they go to register a protest vote?

    Don’t get me wrong, I would love for this (post-liberalism) to be true but I don’t believe it’s here yet.
    Come the next general election I’m sure that most of these UKIP voters will return to Labour and the Tories just as Liberal and Lib-Dem (and SDP!) have in the past. In fact I also believe that the anger against the Lib-Dems will still be strong and a poor showing by them will make the likelihood of a majority for one of the two main parties even greater. This gives them even less reason to really change or even to consider if they need to change beyond the superficial.
    I totally resonate with your last paragraph! But there are two problems.
    First, is there really a national feeling or mood? There may be a general resentment towards political parties and polititions and a belief that they dont care but is this actually anything more? When the recovery comes, how many will forget their resentment as long as thay have a more secure job and a house that’s gaining in value once more?
    Second, I don’t believe the main parties, at least in their present form and with their present leadership, are capable of real change – they are far too tied to their ideological models. I see no sign that they “get it” at all. While we might see a change on the surface, perhaps in language – say, as I mentioned above over immigration – this is no more than a tactic to win a few extra votes. After all, they (at least Labour or the Tories) don’t need to win back that many in a couple of years to form a government that doesnt need Clegg to prop them up.
    However, I hope I’m just too cynical and if you’re right, I’ll be the first to celelbrate with you!

    • Thank you for this long and detailed response. I’ve thrown this post out knowing some of this is gut feeling and that I’m not overly knowledgeable on this issue. I think a lot of us including the party leaderships are playing a guessing game. What does UKIPs success really mean in the long term?

      I admit that I am by nature optimistic on this and that without the post dragging on longer I have simplified some aspects and I agree with your analysis. I too doubt that the main parties are capable of a significant change in ideological approach, but that just further leaves the door open in the long term for UKIP to make further gains. UKIP have plenty of flaws though and they are benefitting from being in the right place at the right time to a certain extent, but they are also grasping the mood of the electorate in a way that the other parties don’t appear to be managing too.

      Post-liberalism if it is to come to anything faces a difficult ride. Cameron’s Big Society was one attempt to embrace aspects of it and it has fallen flat on its face, but that is partly due to its top down nature. The benefits reforms are also touching it and they are having a rough ride.

      I certainly don’t have much in the way of answers, but I’m interested to see how the concept of post-liberalism develops and whether it gains support over time.

  2. Excellent article. I agree that the time is ripe for post-liberalism and I hope it makes politicians think rather than just accept what has been the norm for the last 50 years. However, one major point about the rise of UKIP is the cult of celebrity. Farage is a charismatic speaker and unlike the leaders of the main parties, someone you could imagine yourself having a pint with. He does not seem out of touch at a time when the other leaders are not listening to the public. Politicians have lost the trust of the electorate and it is time for a shake up.

  3. I agree that we are at Post – something but I am not sure I agree that the ism is Liberalism although many in society are certainly wanting that. I think that we are at Post-Partyism. These elections are following on the heels of elections for Police Commissioners when despite the local parties, 1/3 of the seats went Independent and those like myself who were unsuccessful did remarkably well considering the barrier to engagement and the challenge of getting our voices heard. The sadness of last week is not that UKIP did well and for that well done, but that the media all but ignored a 15% increase in seats for Independents who at present are campaigning on a seat by seat basis without any form of support to equate to the way the parties operate. If someone can resolve how to support and promote a concept that then depends on the voters finding out for themselves if the local candidate has got plans they can support, rather than relying on a warm fuzzy red, blue, green, yellow or now purple which is accountable only to the party endorsing and not the local electors things might really change.

  4. From my new US perspective, I wonder if what we are post- is liberalism at all. Here in the USA there is a clear distinction between liberalism, which is of the moderate left and the dominant philosophy of Democrats, and libertarianism, which is an extreme right wing position, linked to the Tea Party. It is libertarians, not liberals, who want to do away with all kinds of government regulation, and have a vision for society which is not so much society as self-sufficient individuals protecting themselves with their guns. It is this vision, minus the guns, which Margaret Thatcher brought to the UK. If its UK manifestation has died with her, then I for one will not mourn it. But I don’t think we are seeing the end of liberalism, as seen in the USA, which is basically that the government does not dictate our morality and private lives, although it is under threat from those with authoritarian tendencies using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to control people.

  5. This debate is primarily a Southern /Westminster- bubble debate; The NE as it always is, is ignored as irrelevant; UKIP stood in many seats in Durham and Northumberland County Council elections. NO SUCCESS. IN South Shields they LOST but the debate in the Southern press was about their SUCCESS. Once again we feel we live in a different world from you lot down south. The big divide.

    • Hi Mike, Sorry to challenge your comment, but this is at least one place where the North / South or even more finely tuned North East / South divide does not stand up to scrutiny unless you are prepared to redefine the location of the usual North South divide. The places where the UKIP flag did not get even one seat are: Bristol, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire (that is as far South as a UKIP free zone goes) and then Warwickshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Anglesey, Lancashire, and of course Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria.

  6. The financial crisis wasn’t caused by deregulation. Financial services remains one of the most heavily regulated industries in the economy. We don’t have a supermarket services authority and a central supermarket but we do have a financial services authority so obviously captured by big banks and a central bank with a monopoly on money creation. Greed didn’t cause the financial crisis. Bankers don’t satisfy their greed by loaning money to people who are never going to pay them back. Reckless monetary policy blowing up an asset bubble in housing and moral hazard through implicit guarantees of bailouts for large financial institutions caused the financial crisis.

    • Hi Oliver, I spent 10 years as a financial adviser although I am no economist. I think the financial crisis did occur despite a regulated system in place, however the financial markets in themselves are not regulated in a way that prevents overheating (or rather that side of the regulation was not robust enough at the time). In principle having regulations may not save anything if the regulations themselves are not synchronised to the risks that may get us into trouble.

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