Americans have the Tea Party, which isn’t a party at all, but British establishmentarians are worried about a similar movement that is an actual party.
The UK Independence Party or UKIP (pronounced “u-kip”) could have real impact on the European Union elections next month. UKIP is made up mostly, though not exclusively, of former Tory voters who regard Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies as weak-kneed leaders, who neither listen to their base nor fight for the conservative values they profess.
UKIP began as a home for British voters skeptical of the value of membership in the European Union and has since broadened its appeal on immigration and other issues of concern to many. Its quasi-populist appeal has grown year by year, and while the party has yet to elect a member to the House of Commons, UKIP has won numerous local elections and is represented in the British delegation to the European Parliament in Brussels.
British Conservative leaders have dismissed UKIP supporters in much the same way Washington’s GOP leaders have dismissed Tea Partyers. As UKIP gained popularity, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, who had earlier dismissed UKIP followers as “fruitcakes” and sounding as welcoming as our own Sen. Mitch McConnell, grumbled that potential UKIP voters are “extremists” who need to be beaten, not courted. According to Liam Fox, a former Tory defense minister, Conservative Party leaders too often dismiss UKIP leaders and voters as “cranks” and “crackpots.”
Mr. Fox notes that Tory leaders don’t seem to appreciate that “[m]any decent and patriotic people have been willing to consider flirting with UKIP.”
“We should not insult their motivations by denigrating their voting choice.” he said. Instead, Mr. Fox advises his fellow Conservatives that they must instead of dismissing their concerns, convince voters considering defecting to UKIP that the consequences of splitting the vote will be victory for those who, no matter how upset they may be with the Tories, will prove infinitely more objectionable.
Mr. Fox recognizes that voters are not “obligated” to vote for a party or its candidates and that instead, the party and candidates seeking their votes have an obligation to actually earn their support.
In a multiparty system such as exists in Britain, the disgruntled voter can simply decide to vote for a third candidate in that nation’s general elections by forming another party. A successful party has to appeal to both its own regulars and to voters who want more aggressive leadership, don’t agree with its entire agenda or are for other reasons convinced its leaders “don’t care” about them. A Conservative failure to make this appeal successfully can lead to a leftist coalition victory.
The main issues driving British voters away from the Tories and into the arms of UKIP are immigration, anti-EU nationalism and a feeling that the nation’s establishment neither understands nor cares much about the average citizen. UKIP leaders are calling for tighter immigration laws and an immediate withdrawal from the EU, positions that are becoming increasingly popular with the British public, but are rejected in one way or another by the Tory leadership.
The Tory leadership wants to temporize when voters are seeking more: Mr. Cameron’s party suggests “renegotiating” Britain’s relationship with the EU and is just as unwilling to recognize the arguably legitimate concern of British voters with the wave of immigrants that can simply move into the country, thanks to the EU relationship.
Recent events, too, have played into UKIP’s hands as the Tories have been beset by scandals that feed the popular sense that they have little in common with real people and are more interested in their own perks than in the problems of their country. In the wake of a recent scandal involving expenses racked up by Mr. Cameron’s culture secretary and his attempts to save her, polls showed growing UKIP strength, and the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, charged that this and other recent scandals are “evidence of the political class looking after its own.”
As a result, British pols are facing what London’s Daily Telegraph describes as “an anti-establishment backlash that principally benefits groups defining themselves against the members of the political class.” More and more traditional Tory voters feel strongly enough to abandon the Tories for UKIP — a recent poll has UKIP at 20 percent and a number of polls show support for the upstart party growing by the day at the expense of the Tories.
That same poll puts the Tories at 29 percent and falling. Should Tories actually finish third in the May EU elections, the national election next year could prove disastrous — for both the Tories and UKIP — by opening the door to a Labor victory. To retain power, Britain’s Tories must develop a strategy to convince British voters that they can be trusted and that by abandoning their party for UKIP, they will simply be handing the reins of government over to British Labor.
This should all sound familiar to those who follow U.S. politics. Establishment conservatives in this country are in the same boat as Mr. Cameron and his British Tories. The tensions that are being played out there are mirrored here not by disgruntled Republicans forming a new party, but in the primary wars being fought in state after state over some of the same issues and attitudes tearing the conservative coalition apart across the Atlantic.
Republican leaders here, like Britain’s Tories, have to bring back disgruntled conservatives by November lest they decide to stay home and let the Democrats hold the Senate, which could set the stage set for yet another Democratic presidential victory in 2016.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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