‘Different clique, same sofa’: the Carswell defection to Ukip and anti-politics

DipticBy Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). Read more posts by Will here.


Much of the commentary that has followed the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip has focused on Eurosceptic disquiet within Conservative ranks that threaten to pull the party apart even before a referendum on EU membership can be held. But the challenge that Ukip poses to the Westminster village is a symptom of the ongoing crisis of political trust that reached a climax with the expenses scandal and the global financial crisis. Indeed, Carswell’s statement on his resignation is just as much a statement on the failings of contemporary politics as it is about the need for EU reform or reduced immigration (factors typically claimed to be pivotal to Ukip support). Carswell’s views are firmly in line with widespread public discontentment with politics today, and are especially close to the intense contempt for the political class felt by Ukip supporters.

In a YouGov survey last year, we asked respondents a series of questions about the ability and willingness of politicians to deal with the problems facing Britain today. Many of their views reflect the criticisms that Carswell directs at the Conservative party and towards the political class more generally. These reflect a much more fundamental challenge to the political class than gripes over government policy on the EU and immigration. Three failings of politics stand out in Carswell’s statement that are also reflected in public opinion: self-interest, spin/cynicism and lack of leadership.


There is a lack of conviction and seriousness, Carswell argues, about the challenges facing Britain: “The problem is that many of those at the top of the Conservative party … aren’t serious about the changes that Britain desperately needs.” We found that 33% of people, and 28% of Ukip supporters, agreed that “politicians possess the leadership to tell the public the truth about the tough decisions that need to be made.”


The ruling class is attacked by Carswell for lacking principle and being motivated by self-interest: “Few [politicians] are animated by principle or passion. Those that are soon get shuffled out of the way. Many are just in it for themselves. They seek every great office, yet believe in so little.” We find a prevailing belief among the general public that politics privileges the rich and the powerful, with 72% of respondents agreeing with the view that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just 8% disagreeing. A striking 85% of Ukip supporters take this view, contrasted with just 53% of Conservative supporters.


Politics has become too much a parlour game for the ruling class, detached from the concerns of ordinary people, Carswell argues: “Politics to them is about politicians like them. It’s a game of spin and positioning.” This too-clever-by-half schoolboy approach to politics leads to an emphasis on headline-grabbing: “They don’t think things through. They make one glib announcement after another – and then move on. On to the next speech. The next announcement. The next headline.” This viewpoint is resoundingly supported by respondents to our survey, with 80% agreeing with the statement “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”. An astonishing 88% of Ukip supporters held this view, with just 1% disagreeing.

While the Carswell defection can be seen as a consequence of the fault lines over Europe that have existed in the Conservative Party since the 1980s, it also reflects a clear groundswell of public opinion calling for change in the way politics is carried out. The prevailing mood of contempt for the practice of politics and the political class has not been seriously addressed, despite much rhetoric and promise. This may only be the start of a fracture across the whole political spectrum – as frustration grows with how little has changed, both inside and outside the Westminster bubble.

Further details of the original survey can be found here.

Polling Observatory #26: Politics becalmed as summer approaches

Nott 30-06-13 low res cropped (1)

Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org

This is part of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the political hurricane of the May local elections has quickly become a distant memory, with hostilities easing as parliament heads towards its summer recess, support for the parties has seen a slight unwinding of some recent developments. In the last month the media, and the public, appear to have lost interest in Nigel Farage and his party, with support for UKIP having fallen to 12.8% (down almost two percentage points on our estimate last month). This is the first time UKIP support has seen a monthly drop for several months – suggesting its challenge to the main parties has eased temporarily at least. The Conservatives, in contrast, have seen their political fortunes improve slightly, with their support rebounding to 30.0%, up almost two percentage points on last month. This figure still puts them far down on their standing in the polls at the start of 2012, and there is clearly a long way to go before they have any chance of forming the next government. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have edged up slightly in the polls to 8.3%, though their support has seen little meaningful movement since the end of 2010, which does not portend well for their hopes at the next general election.

Despite persistent talk of Labour’s struggle to gain traction in making the political weather and convincing the public that it offers a credible alternative to the current government, it retains a healthy lead over the Conservatives of almost eight percentage points, with its support standing at 37.6%.

This currently becalmed state of British politics arguably reflects the high degree of uncertainty about the country’s future, combined with wider public disillusionment about politics. Talk of economic ‘green shoots’ is clearly premature, although there are some signs that the worst may be over and voters may be starting to get the feel-good factor back. There is much potential for the political weather to change again, with the upcoming Scottish Referendum and continued debate over an EU referendum leaving much uncertainty over where the UK will stand in May 2015, when the parties are next due to face the electorate. Just to what extent austerity will change the British economy and politics is unclear. What is unquestionable, however, is that citizens have become deeply disenchanted with politics and mainstream parties. In a recent YouGov poll for the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southamptona remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, while 72% agreed with the suggestion that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. Interestingly, older voters were even more negative about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. It is no wonder, then, that all the parties are struggling to convince anything close to a majority of the public that they have the capability and strength of character to make a difference.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup