June 17, 2009
British elections are known, just like American ones, for the boring consistency with which the two main parties dominate the results. Sure, there’s the occasional socialist from Vermont, perhaps a Liberal Democrat wins a seat in some strange part of England. But we know in our heart of hearts that it’s always going to be either the Republicans (on my side of the pond, Conservatives) or the Democrats (Labour) that’s actually going to gain the power.
Even when this doesn’t hold, like when Ross Perot nearly broke through, we know that next election it’ll all return to the status quo ante. There just doesn’t seem to be any way for a political organisation to stay viable long enough, to keep the activists engaged between elections, so that a partial breakthrough or a partial success can be built upon two or four years later (with the exception of the Celtic parties in Wales and Scotland, something of a special case).
Until this election just gone past in the UK, that is. I’m a member of a smaller party called UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party). Our defining policy is that we simply don’t want to be part of this federal European superstate that is being built, what you would probably know as the European Union. It’s not that we’re “Little Englanders” as the pejoratives have it, rather that we’re Great Britons. We have the fifth (or depending upon how you measure it, sixth) largest economy in the world, we’ve a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, we’ve connections and contacts all over the world. We’ve cousins and relatives all around, our head of state, Queen Elizabeth II is also the head of state of some 18 or so other nations, ranging from tiny Grenada to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. We just don’t need to shelter under some umbrella of European countries, most of which would impose social democracy upon us in a heartbeat.
We’re all in favour of trading with our neighbours, of course, but also of trading freely with the rest of the big wide world. We’ll co-operate with anyone, anywhere, when we both desire to and think that it’ll be in our interest. We just don’t think that full blown political union with 26 other European countries is needed to enable this. I should also add that we’re not anti-Europe (I myself live in Portugal which would be a strange thing for someone uncomfortable with foreign climes to do) nor are we xenophobic. We just don’t like the extant and proposed political structure.
Having given the party advertisement (and don’t worry about my hitting you up for contributions, as in the U.S., non-citizens cannot donate to campaigns) now for the boasting. UKIP was set up in 1993 and was very definitely seen as a minority affair. In 1999 we won three seats in the European Parliament. There are two reason as to why the EU Parliament, rather than the Westminster one. Firstly, we’re seen as a single issue party (rightly or wrongly) and it tends to be the European elections when our issue gets aired. The second is that the electoral system is different. Westminster elects as you do to Congress, one congresscritter per district. In the European ones, the country is divided into regions and then each party runs a list of candidates for the region. For example, in the SE region of England there are 10 seats and 15 parties put up candidates for them. The more votes each party had the more of their list of 10 candidates got elected. You can see how this worked out here. The net effect is to make it a great deal easier for the so called “minor” parties to win seats.
However, it’s not quite right to think of UKIP as a minor party any more. In 1999 we won those three seats, in 2004 (elections are every 5 years) we won 12. That was our breakthrough, our Ross Perot moment. Back in January this year we were entirely written off. The Times (the London one) said that we had “imploded” and the feeling was pretty general. We were on 7% in the polls, as against the 16% and a bit we had had in 2004. The only people who didn’t feel this way were us, those inside the party. We know that for most of the time we fight like cats in a sack but come election time we’re a great deal more disciplined. We started our campaign with the belief that we could maintain our position as the third party, ahead of the Liberal Democrats, the position we had gained in 2004.
There was one little wrinkle of the way the UK works that bolstered this. In an election campaign the BBC promises to give equal time to the three parties that came top the last time the same election was held. So we were going to be there at the top table with Labour and the Conservatives. And this indeed did have an effect.
The end result was that we not just came third, we came second, beating the ruling Labour Party into third place. Not bad for a so called “fringe party,” eh?
It wasn’t just the BBC effect, of course. Some say it was the way in which the troughing of Westminster politicians was revealed, we benefitted from a “none of the above” feeling. But our own suspicion, the reactions we were getting while actively campaigning, was that most share our desire to leave, or at least radically change our relationship with, the European Union. So much so that we think our vote would have been higher if there hadn’t been the “expenses scandal” that so dominated the campaign.
My own role was working in the press office, preparing releases and so on. The usual sort of humdrum stuff that is the meat and drink of any political campaign. The interesting part was when I was ghosting newspaper articles: I’ve been a 42-year-old party leader with a passion for sea angling, a 62-year-old ex-telecomms salesman, and even an Argentine/Spanish female accountant. PJ O’Rourke was right when he said that trying to copy the writing style of others teaches you more about your own style than anything else can. As a purely personal point, I think the 1,000 word piece I did on politics as our female accountant for the Daily Sport was the high point. A Thousand words is rather more than they usually have in the entire paper! (think the sadly departed Weekly World News without the intellectual content, combined with the Sport‘s advertising slogan “More nipples than any other daily paper!”) Happy days, happy memories!
Of course we’re proud of what we achieved, we raised our vote, won an extra seat and kept the flag of euroscepticism flying. But what has been rather overlooked so far is what we managed in the larger scheme of things. As I say above, there have been insurgent campaigns in both American and British national politics, but they’ve never lasted to the next electoral cycle. That’s what we’ve managed, we’ve been able to keep the party alive and together over three electoral cycles. We’re now an inescapable part of the electoral landscape, and it’s the first time anyone has done that in either country since the emergence of the Labour Party in Britain in the early 20th century.
I can’t claim all the credit for this, of course, in fact am too English to be comfortable claiming any. But I’m damned proud to have taken part, both chuffed and puffed that we managed to do what has been so often threatened but not achieved for over a century, we broke the mold of politics.