Nigel Farage will be going home from his party’s conference on a high, leaving behind the claim that Ukip is now in prime position to mount a serious challenge to the mainstream parties in 2015. Months ago such a boast would have invited ridicule but not so today.
Ukip’s strong showing at last month’s Eastleigh by-election may have been no more than a classic mid-term freak result, indicating the hearty desire of many voters to give the political establishment a kicking. But polls suggest that Ukip’s ratings are holding steady now at a respectable 16 to 17 per cent, well below the 28 per cent that they pulled off in Eastleigh but a figure that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats can only dream about. It also puts Ukip only 10 or 12 points behind the Tories.
As Mr Farage made clear in Exeter, he is not sitting still. His manifest aim now is for Ukip to retain its image as an insurgent force while becoming the dominant party of the right – a new, different right from the Tory variety – shriller, more populist, less obviously class-based and shorn of the Tories’ association in people’s minds with privilege. But, Mr Farage knows that Ukip has to look beyond the party’s start-up constituency of Tory Europhobes for this seismic political shift to come about. It has to shed its reputation as a single-issue party and woo more people who think of themselves as Middle England, which also means attracting more people who might consider themselves natural Labour voters.
Pursuit of this strategy explains the emphasis that Mr Farage placed in Exeter on immigration – an issue that polls show cuts across traditional party lines; his new proposal is to withhold benefits from immigrants until they have been in the country for five years. At the same time, his call for a tax break for single-earner couples was a pitch at stay-at-home mothers.
Although the mainstream parties don’t like to admit it, Ukip is already reaping the fruits of its newfound strength in the polls by defining the terrain of public discussion. It hardly seemed a coincidence that, as Ukip leapfrogged over the Liberal Democrats in the polls, Mr Clegg formally buried his call for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the Prime Minister chose today to deliver his own speech on immigration in which will call for measures to ensure that immigrants have to wait for two to five years to obtain social housing.
Liberals are right to worry about what looks like a race to outbid Ukip on immigration and benefits. But moaning about populism and accusing Ukip of xenophobia won’t stop Mr Farage. He thrives on the animosity of bien pensant Britain and, as the continuing success north of the border of that other great populist, Alex Salmond, shows, alienation from traditional parties is now widespread. The messages of Ukip and the centre-left Scottish Nationalists are not the same but both movements draw strength from frustration with long-distance, unresponsive government and from a sense that the old party politics is bust.
The most immediate casualty of Ukip’s continuing rise is the prospect of the Tories pulling off an election victory in 2015. Ukip’s 16 per cent added to the Tories’ 28 makes 44 per cent – enough to trump Labour’s current rating of about 38 per cent. But if the right stays fractured, the left surely wins, as Ed Miliband knows, which is partly why he looked so assured at his own party conference in Birmingham. He should not feel sanguine. The rise of the new populism challenges all the mainstream parties to reconnect fast with ordinary people’s concerns or haemorrhage support. That goes for Labour, too.