the rapid rise of UKIP will spread alarm among the big three
By Anthony King
May 25, 2004
Just as the Greens caused a sensation in the
European Parliament elections 15 years ago by finishing a
strong third behind Labour and the Conservatives, so the
United Kingdom Independence Party looks set to cause a similar
sensation in a fortnight's time.
The only difference is that, whereas the
Greens in 1989 failed to win any seats in the Strasbourg
Parliament under the old first-past-the-post electoral system,
UKIP under proportional representation now could easily gain a
dozen seats or more.
Success on that scale would propel UKIP into
the centre of national political debate. It would also dent
the Conservatives' European prospects because UKIP takes its
support disproportionately from among people who are normally
That said, YouGov's survey for The Telegraph
suggests that UKIP's appeal is almost entirely focused on
Europe. There are no signs of UKIP making a major breakthrough
at the local or national levels. There are also no signs of
the British National Party making major advances on any level,
though it will probably pick up a scattering of council seats
in its strong areas.
YouGov estimates that the percentage turnout
in the local and Euro elections this year will be in the mid
30s, conceivably in the high 30s. When seats in the European
Parliament were last contested in 1999, turnout in Britain -
24 per cent - was the lowest anywhere in the EU.
However, the Government's decision to hold
this year's Euro elections and the annual round of local
elections on the same day will almost certainly raise turnout
to more normal local-election levels. The holding of
all-postal ballot elections in four English regions should
also raise the number of people casting their votes.
YouGov asked respondents across the country
how they would vote - if they voted - in the Euro elections,
in any local elections held in their area on June 10, and at a
UK general election if one were held soon.
The results, set out in the section of the
chart headed "Voting intentions", show that large
numbers of voters clearly differentiate between the three
types of election and also that the level of turnout in the
Euro elections will be crucial.
Among all eligible electors, the
Conservatives and Labour are neck and neck in the Euro
elections, with the Liberal Democrats a comfortable third and
UKIP fourth. However, among the 39 per cent of YouGov's sample
who say they are "very likely" to vote in the Euro
elections next month, the picture changes drastically.
The Conservatives, whose supporters are most
likely to turn out, forge ahead. Labour, whose voters are
least likely to turn out under present circumstances, falls
back. The Liberal Democrats also lose support and UKIP moves
up from fourth place to third.
On that basis, the Conservatives would
"win" the election while actually, under PR, winning
less than a third of the seats - a lower proportion than they
hold now. Labour would lose the election on any basis, winning
less than a fifth of the seats - also a lower proportion than
it holds now. The Liberal Democrats would win roughly one seat
in seven - yet again a smaller proportion than they hold now.
The real winners, in the sense of the party
making the largest gains (possibly the only gains), would be
UKIP. Among the 87-strong British delegation to the European
Parliament, UKIP currently holds only three seats. Even though
Britain's delegation to Strasbourg has been reduced from 87 to
78, it looks as though when the ballots are counted on June 13
it could find itself with between eight and a dozen seats,
possibly more. Most of this UKIP vote is undoubtedly a
"protest" vote but one that is not nearly as diffuse
as past protest votes have usually been.
The UKIP protest is targeted specifically at
the EU, the Brussels bureaucracy and Europe's increasing
interference in what UKIP supporters see as Britain's internal
affairs. YouGov's findings show clearly that a majority of
people in Britain are not desperately interested in Europe and
do not know a great deal about the European Union but are
adamant - at least for the time being - that so far as the UK
is concerned the great European project should be, if not
reversed, then at least halted in its tracks.
Those who intend to vote UKIP next month feel
more strongly about these matters than most Britons and would
go further than most in distancing this country from the EU.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the views of UKIP
supporters on Europe broadly represent majority opinion in
The figures in the chart reveal both people's
lack of interest in Europe and their ignorance of it but also
most Britons' generalised antipathy towards many of its
As the figures show, only 13 per cent of
YouGov's respondents are "very interested" in the
European Parliament elections, a mere three per cent feel they
know "a great deal" about the Parliament's powers
and responsibilities, and a majority confess that, if they
bother to vote at all in the elections on June 10, they will
vote mainly not to influence the composition of the European
Parliament but to express their views about the political
scene in Britain.
As regards their knowledge of broader
European affairs, a large majority of Britons are in a state
of ignorance that may or may not be blissful but is apparently
unembarrassed. Fully 58 per cent of YouGov's respondents admit
they have no idea who presides over the European Commission,
only 23 per cent can correctly name Romano Prodi, and the rest
guess wrong (including five per cent for Italy's prime
minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and three per cent for the French
president, Jacques Chirac).
Even though the last European Parliament
elections were also held under PR, only 31 per cent of
YouGov's respondents realise that if they vote on June 10 they
will be voting for a regional party list rather than their
local MEP. Among those most likely to vote, the proportion
rises to just 41 per cent.
As for a proposed new European constitution,
only 21 per cent say they would vote in favour of such a
constitution if a referendum were held now and two thirds of
British voters - as the figures in the chart make plain - are
opposed to Britain's surrendering its veto in fields such as
defence, social security, taxation and the courts and criminal
justice. The Government's "red lines", in most
voters' view, must not be crossed.
This year's local elections will almost
certainly mark a contrast with the Euros, with the local
results conforming to a more familiar pattern.
YouGov's findings suggest that the
Conservatives will come in ahead of Labour, making substantial
gains in both seats and councils, and that the Liberal
Democrats - always strongest in local elections - will more or
less hold their own.
Interest and a sense of involvement in the
local elections are at a considerably higher level than in the
Whereas only 27 per cent of voters reckon
they know "a great deal" or "a fair
amount" about the European Parliament's powers and
responsibilities, double that proportion, 54 per cent, claim
the same levels of knowledge about the powers and
responsibilities of their local council.
An even larger number, 60 per cent, think
those powers and responsibilities are substantial.
Similarly, whereas only 28 per cent of
YouGov's respondents say that, if they vote in the Euro
elections they will be voting "mainly to influence the
composition of the European Parliament", the proportion
among those saying that, if they vote locally, they will vote
"mainly to influence the way their local council is
run" rises to 54 per cent.
Predictably, sharp rises in council tax top
the list of issues that people say will determine how they
vote, if they vote, in local elections on June 10.
The low quality of local services and the
failures of the Blair Government are some way behind.
YouGov elicited the views of 1,928 adults
across Great Britain online on May 20 and 21. The data have
been weighted to conform to the demographic profile of British
adults as a whole.
Anthony King is professor of
government at Essex University