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The Electoral State of the Parties, 5: UKIP

22 September 2014


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.


  1. Harrry Hayfield

    When UKIP have stood in the Assembly in the past, their best performances have always come in areas that voted NO in the 1997 referendum. In 2003, they stood in 20 constituencies with their best performances being Gower (10%), Swansea East (8%), Torfaen (7%), Newport East (6%), Montgomeryshire (6%), Alyn and Deeside (5%), Swansea West (5%), Newport West (5%) (in other words Swansea, Powys, Newport and Flintshire, all places that voted NO in 1997).

    Since then however, UKIP have taken the place of the Liberal Democrats as the party of protest (as demonstrated in 2011 when they abandoned constituencies entirely and focused on the regional list). polling their highest share (5.26%) in Wales South East (mainly comprised of Monmouthshire, the one area to vote NO to the Assembly and NO to increased powers)

  2. J,Jones

    Good analysis Roger. About time someone looked seriously at what Mr d’Hondt might gift to us after the next Assembly elections.

    I agree that UKIP will not take a seat in Wales at the GE… may rise but people often vote for the party nearest to their political position but most likely to have a chance of winning. But as you say, UKIP in Ynys Mon may take Labour and Tory votes and let Plaid in and in Arfon take Labour votes and spoil the chance of Plaid being ousted.

    What fascinates me is the cross tabulations in the polls in Wales. Speaking from memory I can think of two of those polls that showed the party supporters most likely to move to UKIP as being Plaid voters in one or other election. On the face of it this is counter-intuitive…how could voters who support Independence/devolution and state intervention on a semi-socialist model consider voting for a Unionist, free market (not right wing though) party? I looked at one breakdown of Kippers “views” and it showed something unexpected; for instance they were voters most likely to oppose the privatisation of Royal Mail.

    In Wales we are no less anti-immigration than in England but the party that is most concerned about immigration (albeit mostly English immigration) is Plaid. Then you have to consider who votes Plaid outside its strongholds; in those constituencies Plaid is a party of protest for people whose dislike of Tories is ingrained and generational but who feel let down by a Labour party grown stale and complacent.

    Seats in the Assembly are there to be lost by Ukip. They can lose them by putting up their usual rag-tag mix of whacko and far right misogynists who draw the sort of scrutiny that Gill suffered from at the hands of right wing Nationalist bloggers or they could crumble and abandon their pro union pro freedom of choice and devosceptic stance in pursuit of the centre ground.

    In Wales we have enough parties unquestioningly camped around the (Welsh) centre ground. We need UKIP to offer some alternative view point.

  3. Robert Tyler

    “in other words Swansea, Powys, Newport and Flintshire, all places that voted NO in 1997”. Sorry, Harry but Swansea voted YES in 97. Pretty basic….

  4. Ian Williams

    Interesting comments, but….I find that the people are talking in increasing numbers about voting for UKIP. As for structure, just take South East Wales, they have branches in Newport East/West, Torfaen, Monmouthshire, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Islwyn, Merthyr and while some are new, places like Newport, Monmouthshire and Torfaen have around 100 members each.
    All this is happening while labour branches are amalgamating due to falling numbers. Remember that the labour membership is bolstered by union membership.
    UKIP are quite well organised, with members out on the streets while labour, conservatives and lib/dems rely on post to deliver.

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