By Dr Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics
Exactly a year ago, the Polling Observatory team (Dr Rob Ford, Dr Mark Pickup and myself) were reporting ‘Christmas Cheer for Cameron‘ on our monthly poll update at NottsPolitics. Cameron’s veto of proposed treaty changes at the EU summit on 9th December 2011 appeared to have given a much needed boost to Conservative fortunes, which had fallen into the polling doldrums for most of the preceding year. The estimates put the gap between the Conservatives and Labour at around a point (37.6% versus 38.6% respectively), most respectable for a mid-term government in hard economic times. Move forward twelve months and the EU vote is not so much looking like clever politics, but a short-term move that has opened a Pandora’s Box on the right, both inside and outside the Conservative Party. Recent polls (from ComRes in The Independent and Populus in The Times (£)) have put UKIP at around 10%, while the Polling Observatory update at the start of December showed it steadily increasing its support.
The rise of UKIP is puzzling because Europe does not currently figure highly among the issues that the public consider to be the ‘most important’ facing the country in Ipsos-MORI’s monthly tracker. In November, just 2% of the public identified the issue as its most important concern. Nor is the issue of immigration (at 7%) at a high level compared to other points during the past decade (consistently being between 15% and 25% between 2003 and 2008). This is despite research showing the appeal of UKIP to voters who are hostile to immigration. The conditions therefore don’t appear to be that suited to the threat that UKIP now pose, though it offers a vehicle for voters disaffected with the other main parties.
The EU veto is now looking to be a flawed strategy for two reasons. Firstly, it appears to have done nothing to ease disquiet from Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party or to defuse the electoral threat of UKIP. Secondly, distancing the UK from the political troubles on mainland Europe, and blaming events and policy decisions in the Eurozone (such as the second bailout for Greece) for the continued stagnation of the British economy, has provided fuel for those who are disaffected with the political parties and the efficacy of the British political system more widely. Cameron’s apparent rejection of the Burkean trustee model of political representation in the veto (playing to popular opinion) has also, unintentionally, contributed to an environment in which populist rhetoric flourishes, feeding on the disaffection of voters with Brussels and Westminster alike.