Even if those who defect to populist parties do so initially only to register a protest vote, the emergence of ‘cultural’ as opposed to ‘class’ voting means that a sizable proportion may never return to the mainstream
The rise of populist radical right parties throughout Europe continues to preoccupy politicians, especially after the European Parliament elections in May 2014. Their strength and significance may or may not be the result of what some scholars see as an inevitable shift to ‘cultural’ as opposed to ‘class’ voting, but it varies considerably between countries, depending on both supply (the parties themselves, how well they’re led, and the alternatives on offer) and demand (how voters are feeling and what they’re looking for). One thing, however, is for sure: where they gain a foothold, such parties present a serious, sometimes existential threat to ‘mainstream’, often older parties: they compete with them for votes, while the need to respond to that threat potentially promotes both inter-party conflict and intra-party strife as policy is adjusted in response to the populist fringe.
It now looks as if Great Britain, and especially England, is no longer immune to this phenomenon. Much of the attention paid to the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the wake of the European elections has been focused on its capacity to eat into Labour’s core vote – and clearly this has to be a worry for the Party’s strategists if it carries on much longer. The more immediate electoral threat, however, remains to the Conservatives since, even if the gap may be narrowing, there are far higher numbers of people who previously voted Tory who now vote for UKIP than there are people who previously voted Labour. As things stand, that threat is more indirect than direct, in the sense that UKIP is not so much likely to win seats from the Conservative Party, as cause it instead to lose them to Labour or the Liberal Democrats by attracting voters who might otherwise have voted Tory. However, given how close the 2015 general election in the UK looks likely to be, that indirect effect could mean the difference between the Tories staying in government and ending up back in opposition, particularly if UKIP, as many experts predict it will, manages to more than double the 3.1% vote share it achieved in 2010.
Centre-right parties like the Conservatives traditionally manage to make a convincing (and historically electorally fruitful) cross-class, traditional, authoritarian, and nationalist appeal, but – theoretically at least – they are electorally vulnerable to the populist radical right in the sense that the ideological gap between ‘their’ voters and the latter is already small. It is also a gap over which those voters may be sorely tempted to leap should they begin to suspect that ‘their’ party is softening its stance, possibly in order to get into government or as the result of the compromises that governing itself makes inevitable. And they may be all the more likely to take that leap if they can vote for a populist radical right party that is not ‘toxic’ in the sense of being seen as within, rather than beyond, the pale by ‘respectable’ people. Just as importantly, and perhaps more even so , those who normally vote for the mainstream centre-right – especially those alienated by rapid social change – might be tempted to join other voters in ‘defecting’ to the populist radical right. Even if those who defect do so initially only to register a protest vote, a sizable proportion of these lost sheep may never return to the fold.
All the above applies to the British Conservative Party and UKIP – and not just to the Tories’ voters but to their members, too. A survey of the Conservative grassroots that we conducted with the help of YouGov last year suggested that that a significant – indeed, alarming – minority of Tory members are sorely tempted to vote for UKIP. We asked them how likely they would be to vote for other parties at a general election on a scale running from 0 (never) to 10 (very likely); the mean score for UKIP was 5, compared to 2.1 for the Liberal Democrats and 1.6 for Labour, which immediately illustrates the relative attraction of UKIP for Conservatives. If we sub-divide this scale into three broad categories – unlikely to vote UKIP (0-3), possible UKIP voters (4-6), and likely UKIP voters (7-10) – we find that virtually identical numbers (28.8% and 28.9%) fall into the latter two categories, which in itself is sobering news for the party: these people, after all, are paid-up party members, rather than just casual sympathisers or people who voted Tory in 2010; apparently, 58% of them by no means rule out voting for UKIP.
Further analysis suggests that those Tory members most tempted by UKIP, are cultural rather than economic conservatives. Put crudely, many of them want to pull up the drawbridge on immigration and Europe, but few of them are flat-taxers, rabid privatisers or zealous state-shrinkers. What is also noticeable is that they do not feel valued or respected by their own leadership. Furthermore, they resent the idea and the experience of coalition, and even regard David Cameron – their own party leader and the country’s Prime Minister – as ideologically more remote from them than they do UKIP.
Our research, then, would seem to support the idea that the ideological and policy appeal of the populist radical right, at least for those who normally support the centre-right, is, indeed, predominantly cultural rather than economic. This makes things very tricky for the Tories and their counterparts in Europe. Since the proportion of voters who are culturally conservative is likely to shrink over time given increased levels of immigration, mixed marriage (or cohabitation) and greater access to higher education, matching the offer made by the populist radical right may not be a particularly smart move in the long term. And even in the short term, it may not be such a great idea either. Firstly, it may put off well-heeled, well-educated, small-l liberal voters who are a key component of the centre-right’s electoral coalition. Secondly, for some of the same (but also for much more hard-headed) reasons, it may alienate some of the centre-right’s business backers. And, thirdly, the populist radical right, as long as it remains in opposition rather than government, can always respond to any matching of its offer by simply upping the ante. That might not worry some ordinary members of the Conservative Party back in Britain, but it might cause problems for their leaders who show every sign of wanting to hold on to office both now and in the foreseeable future.