By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.
UKIP’s supporters show the classic signs of populism in their backing of the party. The dynamics of populism drive its beneficiaries in terms of voting support on a trajectory where surge is followed by slump. Predicting when the former will stop and the latter start is not possible as it depends on a complex set of contingent factors but that the implosion will occur for UKIP at some juncture is a racing certainty.
Populism is an embedded element in the culture of contemporary democracies. It is ready to emerge and be exploited because of a gap between widespread understanding of democracy and the rather the pragmatic reality of its everyday practice. The vision of democracy as rule by the people implies precisely that the wishes of the people will find expression in the policy and practices of government. Citizens in the grip of populism tend to assume that the public has one voice and that it is theirs; since all reasonable people would agree with their commonsense views. Democracy in practice is messier as different interests compete to achieve compromise through backroom deals and special interests use their influence to get deals done on issues that matter a great deal to them. The gap between the visionary ideal of democracy and murky realities of its practice provide fertile ground for populism. The failures to achieve the people’s will is down to malevolent forces: a corrupt political elite, their cosy media friends and the influence of powerful unaccountable forces. Only by ridding ourselves of “them” can “we”, the people of commonsense, get back “our” democracy.
UKIP supporters are populists in much of their outlook as a number of recent surveys tell us (see Table 1 below). More than other citizens they think politicians are out for themselves and beholden to powerful interests. They are happy to see themselves and the party they support as outsiders to the clubby and stitched-up world of Westminster politics; claiming a bias in the news coverage and the media against them more than others. In that sense many more UKIP supporters are prepared to view the current system of politics as a waste of time. In UKIP world they are the challengers or as UKIP expert Matthew Goodwin puts it Nigel Farage is “leading a modern peasant’s revolt against Westminster”.
Table 1: UKIP and populist attitudes
|Opinion||% AgreeAll Citizens||% AgreeUKIP Voters||Source|
|British politicians are out merely for themselves||48||74||YouGov/ Southampton University(October 2014)|
|Politics is a waste of time||26||44||YouGov/Southampton University
|Politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society||72||85||YouGov/Southampton University
|News media coverage of UKIP has been biased against them||44||77||YouGov(May 2014)|
|There is a political class, clubbing together, using their mates in the media and doing anything to stop the UKIP charge||54||92||YouGov(May 2014)|
The populist dynamic that is driving the surge of support for UKIP, garnering the support of the disillusioned rather than the disengaged voters), is capable of and likely to eventually turn in on itself. The gap between the democratic ideal in the heads of their supporters and the messy reality of modern democratic politics remains in place and it provides a trap for UKIP to fall into. So when UKIP supporters see their political heroes backing the interests of big business, or when their elected representatives appear as craven as others and when simple solutions to complex problems cannot be delivered, disillusionment will drive down the party’s support just as it drove it up. Or when self-interested internal power struggles dominate media coverage of the party the drift in support can lead quickly on to implosion. In Australia, Pauline Hanson led her populist One Nation party to remarkable success in state level elections in Queensland and secured over 9% of the vote in the 1998 federal elections. Hanson’s demise was swift, however, and in the 2010 federal election One Nation polled less than 1% of votes. The established mainstream parties are not easy to shift; not least in part as they can occupy some of the issue and policy ground claimed by populist challengers.
Some claim that UKIP are fast becoming the Teflon party of British politics immune from media exposure of scandals affecting it because its base reflects a value or cultural rejection of liberal Britain and a sense of deep distrust of mainstream political parties and their media allies. The survey evidence backs up the scale of distrust held by UKIP supporters but our argument is that the Teflon factor should not be overplayed; distrust of one group of political actors can quickly spread to others. One time beneficiaries can become a target, ask Mr Clegg. Because UKIP is a party of populism it must live and die by its rules. Those rules predict a surge followed by a slump as scandals, exposure of political self-interest and failures of delivery take their toll. The bookmakers would be well advised to offer considered odds on that possibility as well as the number of seats that UKIP will earn in May 2015 general election.