Thom Brooks: Ukip must adapt or it will surely die

Durham University professor Thom Brooks looks at the Ukip phenomenon and concludes that its reliance on one message will be its undoing

Ukip leader Nigel Farage posing for a picture with a member of the public outside the studios of LBC in central London
Ukip leader Nigel Farage posing for a picture with a member of the public outside the studios of LBC in central London

UKIP. The party everyone is talking about. But will they be celebrating big wins in the North East next year? No.

Earlier this month, the Journal published a map of what our region would look like if Ukip made the same gains against Labour as found in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. The results look significant: UKIP would win 11 constituencies from Labour in the North East.

This could make for uncomfortable reading for the Labour Party, which has a massive presence in our region – and its Labour Central is based in Newcastle.

However, by-elections are poor indicators of party success in national elections. Plus, Heywood and Middleton is not Hartlepool or Middlesbrough: local issues matter and so too the particular candidates.

You don’t need to speak about public policy with as many potential voters as I have to know the public seem frustrated by Westminster politics.

Part of the reason is probably because a Tory-led government shrinking the size of the public sector was likely to be unpopular in the North East anyway. It might also be explained by an economy that has recovered for some, but not others.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of organisation for an election campaign. Ukip punches above its weight in getting noticed in headlines.

It has a long, long way to go before it can mobilise a serious threat to the major parties. This requires not only greater financial support, but also members on the ground to help get out the vote. It’s no good leaving favourable voters at home on election day – Ukip need to ensure a strong turnout of its supporters and this requires an organisational capacity they still lack.

A further issue is scrutiny. Publicity is highly useful, but be careful what you wish for.

Close scrutiny has not always turned out well for Ukip as its candidates have been found to depart from the party’s platform – even Ukipleader Nigel Farage described the party’s 2010 General Election manifesto as “drivel” (an extraordinary remark for a party leader to make – is that what Ukip thinks of its own recent policies?)

It’s one thing in low turn-out elections to be carried by protest votes and support for a party leader, but the focus can change to the candidates in general elections and Ukip has not won a seat in Parliament in those circumstances. Perhaps they can retain Clacton-on-Sea in the South East, but they won’t win in Saltburn-by-the Sea in the North East.

The big question is then not if Ukip expects big wins in 2015, but whether the seeds will be sown for breakthrough success in years to come.

I’m no fortune teller, but predict that if Ukip does not adapt as a party it will die.

Politics is a lot like Darwinism: standing still is usually a safe path to electoral extinction. Labour underwent change to win big under Sedgefield MP Tony Blair. PM David Cameron won his party’s leadership over David Davis in his attempt to modernise the Conservative Party.

Ukip is like a one-hit wonder lacking a number 1 hit. And it’s a record they play again and again.

But when your party is linked to one person like Farage and one policy that leaving the EU will solve more problems than it creates, the worry for its supporters is that politicians don’t hold power forever and popular policies will attach to other parties.

This requires parties to have more than one big name and not put all eggs in a single policy basket. The good news for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and especially Conservatives is that Ukip isn’t listening.

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University.

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