It is becoming increasingly difficult to recall that, until quite recently, UKIP had made minimal impact on electoral politics in Wales. Other than narrowly winning the last Welsh European Parliament seat in 2009, its electoral record here prior to the 2014 European election had been dismal. But 2014 saw it make a major advance – not only nearly topping the poll for the European election but also establishing itself as a significant presence in the opinion polls. In the final Welsh Political Barometer poll of 2014, UKIP stood on 18% for Westminster voting intention, while some of the Britain-wide polls that year and early in 2015 actually put the party above 20%.
As the general election approached, UKIP saw its support slip somewhat. The Conservatives, in particular, put pressure on UKIP sympathisers in key marginal seats – were they really content to risk Ed Miliband running the country? The general election campaign also saw UKIP, its policies and some of its candidates scrutinised more closely than hitherto. Nigel Farage, who increasingly seemed to be borrowing tactics from the American Tea Party movement, began to attract growing levels of public hostility. And yet despite all this, what was remarkable about UKIP’s general election performance was the extent to which their support held firm. The party secured a clear third place in votes across the UK, well ahead of the Liberal Democrats. Their 14.1% of the vote in England, moreover, was almost matched here in Wales, where UKIP won 13.6%, up from a mere 2.4% in 2010.
The major disappointment of the general election for UKIP was the pitiful parliamentary presence that their nearly four million votes won them. Douglas Carswell comfortably held his seat in Clacton. But Mark Reckless’ short period as a UKIP MP ended, while Nigel Farage fell almost three thousand votes short in South Thanet. Although the party finished in second place in over 120 seats, it won nowhere beyond Clacton.
Outside England, one of the most striking features of the 2015 election was the contrast between UKIP’s performance in Scotland and in Wales. In Scotland, UKIP stood candidates in 41 of the 59 seats. Every single one lost their deposit. In Wales, UKIP stood candidates in all forty seats, and every single one retained their deposit. UKIP provided the most vivid of all demonstrations that, in the 2015 general election, Wales and Scotland were very different places. (One contributory factor behind UKIP’s differing fortunes may have been their respective Welsh and Scottish leaders. Nathan Gill performed capably across the media, coming across as articulate and generally reasonable; David Coburn’s performances might most charitably be described as eccentric).
At the same time, UKIP didn’t actually come very close to winning any seats in Wales. Their highest vote share, in Neil Kinnock’s old seat of Islwyn, was still below 20%. The UKP vote was spread much more evenly than that of the other main parties: from a high of 19.6% in Islwyn to a low of 6.5% in Cardiff Central. UKIP was winning votes in every part of Wales – north and south, east and west, rural and urban. It did best, though, in the south-east: all five of UKIP’s highest vote-shares were in the south-east Wales electoral region. In some other places – such as north-east Wales, into which the party had put significant resources, it actually made somewhat less impact.
The post-election period has not shown UKIP in the best of lights. Nigel Farage’s resignation as party leader, followed three days later by his ‘un-resignation’, hardly did much for the ‘straight-talking-man-of-his-word’ image he has sought to cultivate. Farage also managed to fall out very publicly with three of the party’s most able and high-profile other figures: Carswell, Patrick O’Flynn, and Suzanne Evans. The financial hangover that parties often face after an expensive election also forced UKIP to vacate its London headquarters. And there was open conflict within the party at its recent annual conference in Doncaster. Frankly, the party has often looked a bit of a shambles since the general election.
Yet thus far, at least, this shambles seems to have had little impact on its public support. One or two of the small number of GB-wide polls published since the election have indicated some drop in UKIP’s vote-share. But the most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll actually showed UKIP support for Westminster up since the general election. That poll also showed UKIP continuing to attract significant support for the National Assembly – sufficient to suggest that the party might win up to eight regional list seats in the chamber.
The details of the polling also tell us something about UKIP voters. In line with other research on the party, the Barometer polls have generally found UKIP’s support higher among men than women, and among working class than middle class respondents. But on the two questions our June poll asked about the NHS in Wales, UKIP supporters also stand out: they were much less likely than supporters of any other party to ‘Trust the NHS in Wales to provide a high quality service’, and also much more likely to expect that the ‘standard of care in the NHS in Wales’ will get worse, rather than better, over the next few years. UKIP supporters tend strongly to be older, whiter, less affluent and less well-educated than the average citizen. They also tend to be discontented – with their own lot, with established politics and politicians, and with the way they see their country changing around them. And they tend strongly to be gloomy about the future. For as long as there are plenty of such people in Wales, and they view UKIP as the party best articulating their grievances, and for as long as the issue of immigration continues to be high among popular concerns, we should expect UKIP to be a significant element in Welsh party politics.
If 2014 was the year that UKIP clearly joined the ranks of the main parties in Wales, then 2015 has certainly seen them consolidate that status. Next May’s devolved election offers UKIP the realistic prospect of another significant step forward, by establishing a significant elected presence in the National Assembly for Wales.