This time last year I didn’t write about UKIP. It seemed justifiable at the time. The party had few councillors in Wales (to be precise, a total of two on Wales’ twenty-two local authorities), having made conspicuously little impact in the May 2012 local elections. UKIP also had no MPs or AMs, and while they had won a Welsh seat in the European Parliament in 2009, by August 2013 their MEP was increasingly semi-detached from his own party. UKIP also appeared to be making more limited ground in the opinion polls in Wales than in England; it was not clear from the polls that the party was on course to win many, if any, seats in the National Assembly in 2016. In the YouGov poll published on this site in July 2013, for instance, UKIP support in Wales was still firmly in single figure percentages for both Westminster and the National Assembly constituency vote.
It is a measure of the extent to which things have changed in the last twelve months that it longer feels remotely credible to exclude UKIP from my review of the electoral state of the main parties in Wales. The most obvious reason for that is this year’s European election. Prior to 2014, UKIP’s performance in these elections had always been notably poorer in Wales than in England: in 1999, 2004 and 2009, Wales was either UKIP’s second or third weakest ‘region’ in Britain in vote share (with Scotland always being the weakest, and London twice narrowly beating Wales for second place). The Celts, it seemed, were generally averse to a party that, some research had suggested, drew its support in England heavily from those who identified themselves primarily as English rather than British.
Even as the European election approached, and the polls showed UKIP support rising in Wales, it still seemed likely that they would do notably less well here than in England. In the event that did not happen: UKIP came within 0.6% of topping the poll in Wales, scored a percentage vote in Wales that was only 1.5% behind the 29.1% secured in England, and its 14.8% rise in vote share since 2009 was its third highest of any region in Britain (behind only the East Midlands and the East of England). Moreover, UKIP did not merely do well in the more ‘anglicised’ parts of Wales (although these were where it topped the poll). Its performance was strong everywhere: UKIP came first or second in every single local authority across Wales, the only party to achieve this.
How did UKIP do so well? Its success was not built upon an obviously thriving party machinery across Wales. In other respects, though, we can at least in retrospect see a basis for significant UKP support in Wales. First and perhaps foremost, Wales has a great many of the economically ‘left behinds’, those whom Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have identified as a key support base for UKIP. Second, there is considerable support in Wales for UKIP’s stance on immigration: as some forthcoming research will show, attitudes here are every bit as hard-line as in England (and rather more so than in Scotland). Third, it may also be the case that the long-standing antipathy to the Conservatives in much of Wales also played to UKIP’s advantage: socially conservative working-class voters, who have often become ‘working class Tories’ in much of England, in Wales in 2014 may have jumped straight from Labour to UKIP. They would hardly have been discouraged from doing so by the hapless Euro-election campaigning efforts of Ed Miliband.
Of course, European elections are very far from an infallible guide to the outcomes of other electoral contests. UKIP did quite well in the 2009 European election across Britain, before performing miserably in the 2010 general election. However, even polling on voting intentions for the general election and Assembly election has shown UKIP making some ground in Wales in recent times: in polls thus far this year UKIP has averaged 12.2% for Westminster voting intention, 10.3% for the Assembly constituency vote, and 13.4% for the Assembly regional list vote.
What does this suggest for UKIP’s electoral prospects in Wales? Despite these improved poll ratings, there still appears little chance of the party winning a Westminster seat next May. (UKIP’s best performance in the 201 general election in Wales was their 3.5% in Ynys Môn: not only 29.9% behind Labour’s winning candidate, Albert Owen, but also behind several other parties). What UKIP might well be able to do, though, is affect who does win some seats. If their vote share in Wales remains at roughly the levels currently indicated in the polls, they will be attracting sufficient numbers of votes that this could conceivably make a difference to who wins in some, more marginal seats.
It is in the 2016 National Assembly election that UKIP’s prospects of electing representatives would seem to be brighter. The semi-proportional voting system allows UKIP the possibility of gaining some regional list seats. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, which put UKIP on 17% for the regional list vote, would on uniform swings from 2011 put UKIP on course to win eight Assembly list seats. But of course the next Assembly election is almost two years away; success there will require UKIP to sustain its current momentum for a considerable period of time. And we might want to remember that in both the last two NAW elections UKIP talked up their chances of winning list seats but ultimately failed to deliver. Their recent success may also be something of a double-edged sword. The party will have to be ready to cope with the increased level of scrutiny and criticism it will receive. As their newly-elected MEP Nathan Gill has already discovered, this is not always very comfortable. UKIP’s opponents and the media will also surely not continue to allow them to spend so much time talking about Europe and immigration in the future. The party will have to have credible things also to say on issues like tax, health and education.
UKIP have clearly arrived as a serious force in party politics in Wales. But arriving is one thing, staying is another, as the history of radical right and protest parties in Europe has shown. Some, like the Austrian Freedom Party, the Danish Progress Party and the French Front National, become significant long-term forces. Others rise only to fade away. One of the big questions in party politics over the next few years concerns which of these categories UKIP will end up being placed into. It’s going to be interesting to watch.