Did UKIP move the earth for you?

30th May, 2014

As we continue to digest the results of the local and European elections last week – the topic of conversation at our latest Trends Breakfast yesterday morning – the media narrative has been very clear about the winners and losers.

The incumbents, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, lost seats and although Labour made some progress in key areas (especially the South of England) failed to capture the public mood overall. The clear winners were UKIP, who, we are reliably informed, caused a ‘political earthquake’ .

But how much of this is pre-ordained narrative and bluster? UKIP undoubtedly had a good night in England’s local elections and even a very good night in the European ones. They gained 161 council seats and sent at least 1 MEP to Brussels from every UK region. But neither will amount to a radical reshaping of politics either at home or on the continent.

Perhaps the most significant point to bear in mind as we digest the results is that UKIP gained 27.5% of the vote on a turnout of 34.2% – meaning that this political ‘earthquake’ was caused by a little less than 10% of the electorate voting for Farage’s party.

To put their local election results in context, UKIP’s 163 seats compare to the Liberal Democrats’ 427, the Conservatives’ 1,364 and Labour’s 2,121. They control no councils and are likely to be a minor, if noisy, voice in most places (should they turn up).

In Europe UKIP’s success was more pronounced, and echoed across the continent as new, anti establishment parties (such as the Front National, Syriza and Podemos) all made gains. But here, as in the local elections, the success of UKIP and others can be overstated. In total, their share of the European parliament is not insignificant – just under 15% – but they are not holding the balance of power and remain a disparate collection of varying agendas that will operate on the fringes – rather than being a cohesive, pan-European political movement.

One reason the reporting of the elections has been slightly more hyperbolic than the reality is the need to create a narrative around elections – a narrative that fills space in the 24/7 news cycle – the same voracious news cycle that frequently finds compelling stories in those global issues that fuel insecurity, pessimism and a fear of the future. The story of the rise of alternative parties, as well as the accompanying fall of the incumbents is a strong one but in the end UKIP did less well in the European elections than many polls had predicted (gaining 27.5% of the vote, rather than the 35% some showed).

In the local elections, the narrative may have looked very different had districts in the South declared earlier than those in the North; making the story more about Labour’s gains in London than UKIP’s in Doncaster. The narrative we got also largely ignored the Green Party, who made significant gains, attracting voters from across the spectrum, and who represent a destination for disenfranchised voters in the same way that UKIP does.

Further to this, the exaggeration of UKIP’s likely influence on either domestic or European politics over the next few years has helped obscure the reasons why they garnered so many votes in the first place: disillusionment with a perceived political elite, a decline in tribal loyalty to a particular party, an uneven economic recovery and a shamelessly populist leader – a former city-trader who has successfully cast himself as a man of the people.

For Trajectory, the relative success of UKIP chimes well with our recent observations on the rise of the ‘compromised’ consumer – the 27% of people in the UK who say they feel the triple whammy of heightened price sensitivity, time pressure, and a low level of freedom of choice and control in the way their life turns out. For this group (also evident to varying degrees across Europe) the appeal of a party that promises to give power ‘back’ to them and a return to rose-tinted ‘simpler’ times is compelling.