Back in May I attended an excellent event at King’s College London titled ‘General Election: One Year Out’ (hosted by Ipsos MORI), the main conclusion of which was that it is exceptionally difficult to predict the outcome of the forthcoming general election. As Professor Roger Mortimer, the first speaker at the event, pointed out, post-war British electoral history suggests the low likelihood of any of next year’s possible results. It is very rare for an incumbent party to increase their vote, for an opposition party to return to government having lost power at the last election, or for there to be two hung Parliaments in a row. So what the heck is going to happen? The opinion in the room seemed to be that a second Conservative-led coalition is the most likely outcome, and I reckon that’s probably right, though I also think that there’s an outside chance of a Labour-led coalition (which would be much more comfortable for the remaining Liberal Democrats).
Of course one of the themes of the event was the potential impact of UKIP, with the consensus seemingly that they will have an important role in defining the result. I agree with this general prediction but I also think they’ll be doing well to get even a single MP. It’s true that they had a strong, and perhaps even better than expected, outing in the European elections but those are a different kettle of fish from the general election (which will play less to their strengths). Still, it’s worth considering the factors in favour of and against a strong UKIP showing next year.
First up, the advantages that the party have are not just based around the fact that the media talks about their prospective impact a lot. They certainly benefit from the oxygen of publicity (as have the major parties for a much longer time) but, more to the point, they also benefit from the broader narratives in much of the media. Of course, what I’m talking about is the large quantity of stories that either explicitly focus on or implicitly flag up immigration and the EU as problems. Those narratives have existed and been sustained for a long time, and have made the political arena ripe for the entry of an anti-immigration and anti-EU party. The BNP ruled themselves out by being populated by people who even the more, shall we say staunchly, right-wing press found difficult to stomach. UKIP are just about respectable enough (unless you look too hard) not to be opposed by those elements of the press, though they also tend not to endorse them explicitly. That fact itself plays to the party’s strength because it allows them to maintain their outsider status, which is what makes them attractive to many people who are disillusioned with the three main parties (a vote for UKIP may well often just be a plague on all the other houses).
The party’s outsider status is played to by Nigel Farage, who relishes the opportunity to speak truth to power as he sees it (e.g. ‘what the other parties won’t admit is that…’). Putting aside the fact that he is certainly not a man of the people, UKIP does benefit from his jocularity and willingness to laugh at himself. As with Boris Johnson, this allows him to appear to be different from the (focus group-led, autocue reading) brushed aluminium cyber-pricks that populate much of the rest of politics. So, plain speaking Nigel is both telling the ‘truth’ that other politicians ignore and, unlike them, doing it in a straightforward manner. This whole narrative is supported, implicitly at least, by the aforementioned articles in the press that sustain the image that immigration and the EU are major problems that are willingly or incompetently ignored by mainstream politicians. The oxygen of publicity supplied to UKIP was just the cherry on top of the broader ongoing anti-EU and anti-immigration press narrative.
Beyond all the above focus on media narratives it must be acknowledged that there may be real worries and concerns, and a sense of detachment from the main parties, in the voting population. People may genuinely be concerned about the EU and immigration so UKIP aren’t just benefiting from media coverage per se; they’re benefiting from press narratives that plug into, sustain, promote, and reflect actual concerns (and prejudices). In relation to the flaws of the EU I have a little sympathy with some of the prevailing discontent; it does seem a remote and complex set of institutions, and the extent to which it is democratic remains a moot point. I’m less sympathetic to the discontent about immigration but perhaps that discontent reflects something beyond the issue itself. It may be prejudice but it may also be a sense of discontent or worry based on insecurity. I may disagree with the manifestation of that insecurity but the point is that it’s there and is given focal points by the aforementioned press narratives. Crucially, the focusing of that discontent, worry, and prejudice on the EU and on immigration is what gives strength to UKIP.
Important though UKIP’s strength may be, I remain unconvinced that it’s enough to overcome the problems that they face at the general election. The overarching point here is that people vote differently in different elections. Many in the electorate believe, and behave as though, a general election is more important than a local or European election (hence the much lower turnout rates in the latter two types). This means that they are less likely to register a protest vote, a fact that shores up the support that the main parties receive. It also means that (as mentioned) more people turn out to vote and, for a number of reasons, they may not be easy to win over to the UKIP cause. Many people are aware that the electoral system is different (and they are reminded of this when they are instructed how to vote upon receiving their ballot paper), and therefore that it makes much less sense to support an outsider party. First-past-the-post is hugely beneficial to the major parties because the electorate understand that it’s rare for there to be more than two serious contenders in a constituency (or, in a safe seat, just the one). They are therefore unlikely to endorse a third or fourth party unless they have been thoroughly convinced that it stands a chance of winning (which is a hard sell). Building on this, the main parties will have been peddling the (sometime accurate, sometimes not) line that ‘a vote for [in this case, UKIP], is a vote for [the other main party than ourselves]’, highlighting the risk that a split in the electorate’s votes can award victory to an unwanted party. People are often risk averse and, to take an example, traditional Conservative voters will not like the idea that switching to UKIP could help Labour win in their constituency. This will, again, shore up the votes of the main parties.
Beyond the technicalities of the electoral system, general elections are also a different proposition from a policy perspective. That is to say that many more issues are salient to voters during a general election. The European elections were the perfect stomping ground for UKIP because they related directly to one of their key issues (the EU) and can be easily linked to the other (immigration). At the general election, though, those issues will have to contend with the economy, health, education, crime, welfare, pensions, and transport, amongst many others. As a single or double issue party UKIP are not well equipped to tackle all of these policy areas seriously, and they don’t benefit from the assumptions (built up over years, if not generations) that the Conservatives are good with the economy, and Labour are good with health and education. This means that UKIP are not well-placed to benefit from habitual voting; there is a reasonable chance that many voters will revert to type in a general election, having expressed their righteous indignation in the European elections.
The obstacles facing UKIP are pretty big and, consequently, I think they’re unlikely to get an MP elected. So, what’s the impact that they could have? The answer to this goes back to the origins of UKIP as a single or double issue party; they’re main goal is to put pressure on the major parties to take a hard line on the EU and immigration. To the extent that they can threaten to split votes in constituencies and help the opposition win they will be doing their job (i.e. by posing a real threat to the main parties). They won’t be gaining seats themselves but they will be upsetting the usual electoral outcomes. In essence, I think UKIP are a successful pressure group in the guise of a political party; they don’t have, or aren’t perceived as having, a serious position on lots of policy issues. They’re the manifestation of the press narratives outlined above, and they’re pushing the other parties to move right on their issues of interest. It remains to be seen what their electoral impact will be in a general election though I suspect they’ll contribute to upsets in some seats by splitting the vote whilst not winning a seat themselves. Their real impact, though, will be in the threat that they are perceived to pose to the main parties (particularly the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, Labour). This impact can already be felt in the hardening of the main parties’ lines on the EU and immigration.
 For a fascinating and convincing account of the complex ways in which media coverage relate to public opinion see John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992). Or, for something shorter, see John R. Zaller, ‘The Myth of Massive Media Impact Revived: New Support for a Discredited Idea’, in Diana C. Mutz, Paul M. Sniderman, and Richard A. Brody (eds.), Political Persuasion and Attitude Change (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 17-78.
 That said, as both a friend and a comedian have pointed out, if the media made an effort to explain and report on the EU a little more rather than just giving up and proclaiming it too complicated (after all, is it really any more complicated that the antiquated system of government in the UK?) then perhaps it would appear more relevant (and not just because of all the laws it ‘imposes’ on us).
 I really think it’s a storm in a teacup; I believe that immigration has a positive social, cultural, and economic impact. Further, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for people who choose to leave their homes (and often families and friends) to try and make a better life for themselves (and that’s not even to speak of the immense sympathy that I have for asylum seekers, who constitute an entirely separate group). Further, and again, if the prevailing press narratives about immigration weren’t both implicitly and explicitly negative then perhaps public opinion would change.