Richard North, 18/12/2012  

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Before any of my UKIP-supporting readers – sensitive souls that some are – complain yet again about me being nasty about their party, let me say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a "malcontent". If there is a great deal wrong with society, it would be absurd, in a political sense, to be "content".

And, if the Ashcroft poll is to be believed, it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that UKIP is indeed a party of malcontents. Its main achievement is to attract the growing band of people who are dissatisfied with modern Britain, people who are unhappy with the response of the main political parties to what they see as deteriorating conditions.

Whether that is a correct interpretation of Ashcroft's findings, though, remains to be seen, but some of what he says seems to pass my own personal smell test. When it comes to "Europe", for instance, experience would suggest that this really is not the major preoccupation of most UKIP supporters.

As a working generalisation (which means that there are many exceptions), one might suggest that this is borne out by the attitude of the typical UKIP supporter - if there is such a thing. Most often, they know very little about the EU, and are uninterested in knowing more. They don't like the EU, and that is all they need to know.

In seeking to leave the "evil empire", therefore, they are entirely happy to accept the "magic wand" option promulgated by the Great Leader – even though this is a naïve, superficial stratagem which will maximise resistance from industry and commerce. This suggests that Ashcroft might have a point. 

If Ashcroft was wrong, and UKIP supporters really did have as their main priority withdrawal from the EU, they could not possibly support the UKIP line.  Rather, they would be demanding a well-considered exit strategy, devised to maximise the chances of successfully fighting an "in-out" referendum.

What we thus appear to see is confirmation that UKIP supporters are driven by negativity. They don't like all sorts of things, one of which is the EU, but this is only one of their "don't likes" and perhaps not even primus inter pares.

That conclusion would seem support Ashcroft's assertion that the UKIP phenomenon is not about policies: The Tories cannot rely in the meme, "that potential UKIP voters are dissatisfied with another party's policy in a particular area (usually Europe or immigration)"  They do not go to UKIP for better policies and would not return to their original party if only its original policy changed.

If UKIP supporters were really interested in policies, they might demand a from the party a coherent, well-balanced portfolio, rather than the rag-bag of "dog-whistle" goodies that ends up a contradictory jumble that simply proclaims the party's unfitness to govern.

It is thus easy to agree with Ashcroft's assertion that many of those drawn to voting UKIP have "effectively disengaged from the hard choices inherent in the democratic process". While they still want formally to take part in it, "being remote from power means UKIP can say what they really think, though there is a tacit acknowledgement that it also means they can say what they like and never be called on it".

That is actually the reality of UKIP. Farage, representing everybody's idea of a "man-in-pub" pundit, can rant at will in the certain knowledge that he will never be put to the test. He does not have to put together a workable policy, or make any of the decisions that even lowly local government councillors or town clerks routinely have to confront.

That, though, probably represents the weakness of Ashcroft's analysis. If you ask people, mid-term, whether they would be prepared to vote for a lightweight, but entertaining protest party – simply to lodge their dissatisfaction with the party in office - then you will get an inflated response.

On the other hand, general election dynamics are different. When people are have to choose the party that is going to take office, they tend to abandon the "fun" option and back a party capable of winning. 

However, there is perhaps another area where Ashcroft's analysis is weak. Here, I am reminded of that wonderful visual gag, where a sergeant addresses a line of troops, calling for a volunteer to take one step forward. Every soldier, but one, smartly takes one step … backwards, leaving the reluctant hero out in front.

That, in many respect, is where UKIP stands. It is not that this party is doing so well - it isn't when real-life results are relied upon, rather than a progression of rather dubious polls. What is actually happening is that the other parties are doing so badly, flattering UKIP's performance.

What Ashcroft is missing, therefore, is the low turnout factor. Having gained the support of an average 3.3 percent of the electorate in the last twelve by-elections, UKIP is hardly a threat to anything other than a Conservative Party terminally weakened by the stay-at-home vote.

Given that the stay-at-homes vastly outnumber UKIP supporters (and indeed the supporters of any other party), one might have thought that Ashcroft's real concern should be to convince that cohort that the Conservatives are worth voting for. And, if we assume (not without cause) that people have stopped voting because they cannot see the point, one of the best stratagems might be to reinvigorate our democracy, for which purpose leaving the EU is vital.

Thus, to an extent, UKIP is an irrelevance – a distraction - for the Conservative Party. The Tories are never going to please the hard-core UKIPites, who revel in their dissatisfaction and are not looking for real solutions to their concerns. They should not even try. Instead, if they should try offering us self-government. I suspect UKIP would be buried in the rush.


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