UKIP’s Margate conference is over, but its election manifesto is yet to be published. We know what the party’s mood music is, and that it has two policies that the three major national Westminster parties plus the Greens find distasteful: withdrawal from the EU and a greatly tightened points-based system for immigration. Beyond that, what UKIP stands for – concretely speaking – is largely a matter of conjecture; of hope for some, yet apparent fear for others.
UKIP’s failure to define what it stands for and what it would wish to do were it to be in a position to influence policy, illustrates that it still has some way to go to define itself as a political party. As matters stand, it remains a vehicle of protest. A UKIP candidate on the ballot paper will effectively present voters with the opportunity to vote for ‘none of the above’, providing that the latter sentiment also coincides with voters’ opposition to EU membership and mass immigration. As such, a vote for UKIP can be said to be positive, as it increases the pressure on other parties to address these concerns, particularly in marginal seats where UKIP’s seizure of a few thousand votes will doubtless hobble the chances of many a ‘mainstream’ candidate. That said, a vote for UKIP should, given the party’s lack of clarity regarding direction and policy, be one that is loaned to it.
UKIP’s absence of a definite set of policies currently enables it to tap into the discontents of different groups of voters in both traditional Conservative and Labour seats, but as such, this approach is unstable. It may work for a while, but can UKIP function in this manner in the longer term, if indeed, there is a longer term? Douglas Carswell has already stated that he believes immigration “has been, overwhelmingly, a story of success.” How many UKIP voters believe that statement to be true? Carswell appears to have strayed into the wrong party, frustrated by Cameron’s commitment to EU membership. Farage may yet come to rue having allowed Carswell into his party. It may have raised UKIP’s profile and given it a brief fillip in the polls, but if one of UKIP’s two core messages that has great resonance with the public – its opposition to mass immigration – is abandoned, UKIP may as well disband and simply become a campaign group calling for an EU referendum. Then again, perhaps it was never intended for it to be anything other than the latter.
It seems likely that UKIP will stack up a large number of votes across the country in May, taking support from both the Conservatives and Labour, creating unpredictable electoral dynamics and consequences in many constituencies. However, it is unlikely to seize many parliamentary seats, and like the SDP, will come a good second in many a constituency. As to what readers of this blog think, the recent readers’ poll revealed that the greatest proportion of respondents – 25% - thought that UKIP would have 2-3 MPs in the new parliament, but only 3% thought that the party would have no MPs, the same percentage who stated that the party would obtain 51 seats or more (an unusual opinion, certainly). The majority of respondents – some 68% - thought that UKIP would have between 1 and 10 MPs, but surprisingly there was also a cluster of readers – 12% - who thought that the party would obtain between 21 and 25. However many MPs are elected under the UKIP banner, their influence upon this General Election is likely to be a significant and interesting one, but quite what it will stand for remains very much up in the air.