When a major bloc of voters is effectively ignored by the party they usually vote for, it’s likely that they will vote for the first party that speaks to their concerns. The so-called blue-collar conservative voters in England appear to have formed the basis of UKIP’s rise, and present the Conservative Party with some significant problems. The relationship of the UK with Europe is at the heart of UKIP’s policies. One gets the sense that if the current crop of left-leaning conservatives (and David Cameron is emphatically one of them) continue to ignore this group, they may find that their mission to massage the UK-EU relationship into a form that is more acceptable to everyone, will be steamrolled by an election loss in 2015.
If anything can be said about the British, then it is their inexhaustible ability to laugh at themselves. But when the ridiculous starts to cost them money, they get angry. If the labelling of food in metric quantities to comply with EU regulations, while still selling it in imperial measures represents anything about the relationship between the UK and the EU, it represents the pinnacle of the absurd. It is the very embodiment of the “bureaucratic monstrosity” that Lord Lawson recently said the European Union had become. The attempt to unify the peoples of Europe by getting them to buy their milk in the same sized units, and then expecting people in the UK to go down to Tesco for 2.272 litres of the stuff when the French and Germans grab 1 and 2 litre bottles off the shelf, is the sort of ridiculousness that Nigel Farage would point at (whilst scoffing) to curry favour with blue collar conservatives. The British still buy their milk in pints in spite of European labelling rules. It’s the kind of issue that David Cameron would not even consider commenting on, which is at the root of the problem.
There is no doubt the Conservatives are in a difficult situation. The voting public did not entrust them with a majority at the last election and as a consequence the coalition with the left is what the Conservatives have their focus on. The question is whether they are taking a calculated risk in playing both sides occasionally—by irritating the right when they pass legislation on gay marriage and then promising a referendum on Europe to appease them. It’s fair to say that mistrust of politicians is at something of a peak in the UK and if the blue-collar voter (left or right) likes anything, they like someone who speaks plainly. In many ways Nigel Farage and UKIP have got this just right. Their simple (some might say simplistic) highlighting of issues around immigration, development aid and the UK’s relationship with the EU appeals to voters who hear nothing but appeasement from the political establishment. Unfortunately, in an unanticipated but nevertheless inescapable way, the nature of a coalition government almost precludes the leaders of the two coalition parties from doing anything else.
If anyone is in any doubt about the disconnect between the Conservatives and their grassroots, one need only to look at the Tory membership figures. They have halved since David Cameron took charge in 2005 and show no sign of picking up. However, the extent to which UKIP represents a threat needs to be kept in perspective. For all its bluster UKIP is still the minnow of British politics. They hold only 9 of the 73 seats in the European parliament and have never won a seat in the House of Commons. Their politics is a familiar mix of the opinions of the British right, albeit with an edge of acceptability which this grouping have seldom enjoyed in recent times. They attract some support from disillusioned Labour and LibDem voters, but despite this their power as vote winners from the Conservatives is where their real strength lies. Nigel Farage seems quite content to make this his political raison d’etre and to make a fool of David Cameron who described UKIP members as “fruitcakes” in 2006.
Ultimately, it is the 2015 general election that the parties have their eye on. The scaremongering that speakers at the recent Conservative conference indulged in with respect to the effect of voting UKIP on a Conservative majority highlighted the sheer political shrewdness of Nigel Farage. His counter that there is little to separate the parties on major issues anyway, so it doesn’t matter who wins the next election, has the swagger and enough of a grain of truth in it to appeal to blue-collar conservatives. They completely understand that the Labour-LibDem coalition that is the possible outcome of a vote for UKIP, would look only a little different from the current government, and would still not address any of their concerns.
Aside from its effect on domestic electoral politics, there is no disputing that the nature of the UK-EU relationship has fundamentally changed with monetary union of the EU. Many conservatives who voted for Britain to be part of a trading bloc would never have done so if it meant being part of a European super state. Monetary union and the problems that have recently emerged have highlighted the need for closer integration in Europe and blue-collar conservatives understand that. They want nothing to do with it. They are proud of their Britishness, happy to be an island with a glorious past, happy with a special relationship with the United States and quite content to be a little ridiculous at times. Except when it costs them money. David Cameron would do well to start listening to them, or he may find that fruitcake is not a sweet, doughy confectionary, but a rather bitter pill.