The UKIP annual conference is today and tomorrow, and what a time to be a UKIP supporter. Their support has more than doubled since the General Election, and euroscepticism has gone mainstream, even in parliament, with 81 Tory MPs (and a sizeable number from Labour) rebelling to support a referendum last year. Next year in the European elections UKIP look likely to vie with Labour to finish first: in 2009, they finished in second behind the Tories. However, after that, it will almost certainly get tougher for UKIP.
Much of their recent surge in support has been from those deserting the Conservative party. According to the latest YouGov poll, about a tenth of 2010 Conservative-voters would now vote for UKIP. Presumably this is partly because these voters don’t like ‘compassionate conservatism’ – preferring UKIP’s ‘traditionalist’ stance on bread-and-butter issues like crime, taxes, defence, immigration and, obviously, Europe. Yet things are changing which could persuade them to go back to blue. David Cameron’s recent reshuffle has been seen as a shift rightwards, notably with Chris Grayling replacing the more liberal Ken Clarke. On a wider note, with Lords reform all but finished and the green agenda severely diluted, apart from gay marriage there is not much visible compassion left in the Conservative party, especially as the two coalition parties have increasingly stressed their differences.
After the European elections, the run up to the fixed-date general elections will soon start, and Conservatives will explain how a Conservative majority would behave. Again, this may entice back deserters. If David Cameron loses (or is replaced before the election) his successor may well be further to the right.
In explaining UKIP’s current standing, it is important to remember we are in the middle of a parliamentary term, and as the election draws nearer many UKIPers will decide they would rather vote Conservative to stop Ed Miliband getting into power. Then, after the election, if the Conservatives lose they will naturally attract right-leaning voters who don’t like voting for the government. The collapse in Lib Dem support suggests there are a lot of voters who naturally oppose parties in government. Of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010, 28% say they wouldn’t vote or wouldn’t know who to vote for. Of the others, only half would vote for the Conservatives or the Lib Dems now. 9% would vote for UKIP or the BNP, parties which have little in common with the Lib Dems, except that they present themselves as alternatives different to the mainstream parties, as the Lib Dems did in 2010.
As the Lib Dems have discovered, being in power is even more unpopular when you can’t get your own way much. If UKIP went into coalition with the Tories in 2015 without disbanding the party, they would not have that much control over policy, and so some of their supporters would get disillusioned. For example, if immigration were not dramatically curbed some UKIP supporters may turn to the BNP instead. Unique to UKIP is the slightly unfair perception that one issue is their raison-d’être. if there were an EU referendum, whether instigated by UKIP in an agreement with the Tories or otherwise, something which animates so much of their supporters and sympathisers would vanish.
I haven’t mentioned the biggest impediment to UKIP yet, which is the First-Past-the-Post voting system. It is likely in 2012 they will be the biggest losers from it. The Lib Dems could retain a number of seats in the high teens with their current poll rating. UKIP’s, not much further behind, would still not be enough to guarantee them a single seat. If you’re really interested in why, take a look at this. With a seat, UKIP would have a foothold in power, and could certainly get more media coverage. Under a true PR system, they would’ve got about 20 in the last election, so could get at least 50 in 2015. It is ironic that the coalition, so hated by UKIP, gave them the best chance of giving them power with the AV referendum.
*edited 21/09/2012 shortly after publishing to amend the first sentence, which originally said the conference was today as opposed to today and tomorrow*