The Conservatives are doing relatively badly in the polls at the moment, while UKIP are doing pretty well. This isn’t new or shocking, and a lot could, and probably will, change before the next general election. But nothing’s certain. UKIP have been getting close to – and on occasion substantially ahead of – the Lib Dems in the polls for well over a year now. Depending on which poll you read, their support is currently at somewhere between 7 and 16% (albeit probably closer to the former), and that’s without them being mentioned explicitly in the questions which pollsters ask respondents, as the three main parties are.
If UKIP’s rise does turn out to be more than a flash in the pan, the effects on the political landscape could be…interesting, and not a little perverse. It’s been pretty likely for a while that the Lib Dems are facing heavy losses come 2015 or whenever the country next goes to polls – at current polling they’re set to lose over two thirds of their 57 seats. This isn’t because their popular support is actually as much as 70% down on the last election, of course – it’s because First Past the Post tends to be a de facto majoritarian system: parties with smaller shares of the popular vote tend to do disproportionately badly.
What this means, though, is that the Tories arguably have almost as much to be worried about as the Lib Dems. The Rotherham debacle aside, most of UKIP’s support comes from disaffected Conservatives. Anti-EU views can be found among people of many political hues (not least on this blog), but the party’s other policies (climate change denial, a desire to massively boost defence spending, a flat tax, and, most recently and prominently, its vociferous opposition to gay marriage) clearly places the party on the “Thatcher was a bit too much of a softie, wasn’t she?” wing of British politics. Realistically, there’s only one major party those votes are going to come from. And because of the quirks of FPTP, that could put a significant obstacle in the way of the Tories being able to hold on to power, let alone regain it if they do get kicked out of office.
In the two decades between the First and Second World Wars, the Conservatives were in power for all but 6 years – though much of this was as the majority partner in coalitions. There were five different prime ministers during this period: three (Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain) were Conservatives, and the other two (Lloyd George and Ramsay Macdonald) only held onto power thanks to Conservative support for at least some of their time in office. It’s not that the Conservatives were especially popular during this period – they weren’t. It’s that this was the point in history when Labour were in the process of overtaking the Liberals as the main centre-left party in the UK, as well as both parties suffering acrimonious splits at different points during this time. As a result, the votes of those who were opposed to the Conservatives were divided between two to three different groupings, so the Tories were able to hold on to a healthy share of Parliamentary seats at every election (they never had fewer than 250, and won a whopping 470 in 1931). And what happened to Labour and the Liberals back then could end up happening to the Tories in a few years. UKIP definitely aren’t going to supplant them as the major party of the right, but they could definitely steal enough votes from them to make it very difficult for them to get a majority in Parliament.
The real sting in the tail, though, is that this could only really ever happen under First Past the Post. If we had a different electoral system – like, say, the Alternative Vote which the Tories worked so hard to (successfully) block – there’d be much less danger of this happening. So it’s possible that the Tories’ rejection of AV could end up destroying their chances of keeping hold of power. Wouldn’t that be beautifully ironic?