Can UKIP become a ‘Major Force’ in British Politics?

By Joshua Townsley & James Downes

Clacton goes purple, and Farage's Army gives Labour the scare in Heywood & Middleton, but UKIP still face some significant Supply Side obstacles if they want to become a major force in British politics.

The People's Army marches on to Rochester. But can Farage's troops become a ‘major force’ in British politics? A 'major force' can be defined principally as gaining significant Westminster representation in the form of a double-digit number of Members in Parliament. Furthermore, this would encompass maintaining the number of elected representatives in Britain’s first order election over an extended period of two or more General Elections. However, the definition of a ‘major force’ can also be loosened somewhat to include a more subtle influence over the political agenda, and consequently, the policies of the main parties. Supply Side analysis of whether Britain’s Radical Right Party could become a major force can be based on Kitschelt's (1995) ‘Political Opportunities Structure Model’. Kitschelt noted the significant institutional obstacle posed by the electoral system, which stands between UKIP and a major breakthrough in British politics.

Elections to the House of Commons, the UK’s only first order election, uses the First Past The Post system. This system restricts UKIP’s ability to become a major force in British politics, as gaining seats requires a geographically concentrated share of the vote in a constituency. For instance, in the 2010 General Election, UKIP won 3.1% of the national vote, but did not win a single seat. Meanwhile, the Greens won just 1% of the vote, and won a seat (Downes, 2013.) This is in accordance with ‘Duverger’s Law’ (Duverger, 1954), which notes that the First Past The Post electoral system institutionally favours a Two-Party system and inhibits multi-partyism. Under Proportional Representation, as used in second order elections to the European Parliament, UKIP is a major force, as their vote does not need to be geographically concentrated. UKIP is therefore institutionally restricted to being a ‘major force’ only in European elections under Proportional Representation. However, because European Parliamentary contests are considered second order elections, UKIP’s sustained presence cannot be considered a ‘major force’ in the context of this article, which requires significant representation in a first order election.

Will Rochester be next to fall?
Recently, UKIP have shown that they can become a ‘threat’ under First Past The Post. In by-elections during this parliament, the party came second in South Shields, Wythenshawe and Eastleigh (Ford & Goodwin, 2014.) The party polled over 18% in Rotherham, South Shields, and Wythenshawe and Sale East, and over 10% in Barnsley Central and Middlesbrough (Ford & Goodwin, 2014.) More recently, the party took the seat of Clacton, albeit helped by the defection of its current MP to their fold. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election on the same day, UKIP came within 617 votes of taking Labour's safe seat. While these elections do not change a government, it does show that UKIP can be a threat under the FPTP system. Moreover, it shows that UKIP can poll well even without the presence of a local base, volunteers, or an established canvassing operation. In other words, UKIP polled well in seats in which “the party had hardly any previous presence” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014.) However, the party will not be able to treat future General Elections in the same way as by-elections, as voters are likely to behave differently when determining who actually walks into Downing Street. While by-elections can be used as a protest vote, often directed against the government or the mainstream parties, General Elections determine governments. Moreover, during General Elections, the increased coverage of the main parties is likely to mean that UKIP could struggle to gain the attention it received during the recent by-election campaigns.

Therefore, the task of becoming a major force at a General Election remains difficult for UKIP. While demand side analysis could lead to the conclusion that UKIP are poised to become a major force in British politics (Ford & Goodwin, 2011), this ignores the practical constraints of winning seats en masse in the House of Commons. To do this, UKIP must build up local political infrastructure (e.g. canvassing operations, and a local volunteer base), which is currently one of its biggest weaknesses (Ford & Goodwin, 2011.) In addition, as UKIP are “especially vulnerable to being seen as a wasted vote” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014:221), it must convince voters it can win locally. If the party can succeed in these two areas, this will allow them to develop a target seat strategy to gain MPs.

Wards/Districts in which UKIP won, 2013-14
Indeed, Ford and Goodwin have noted 10 constituencies that represent the party’s best chance of gaining seats. These lie largely on the East Coast. Great Grimsby, for instance, has “very favourable demographics, splintered local politics, an established anti-system vote, and a strong UKIP presence at the grassroots” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014b.) If the party can focus its resources and efforts in targeted areas such as Great Grimsby, Farage’s party could breakthrough into Westminster and overcome the ‘credibility gap’. This strategy of using local elections as a stepping-stone to build a local base and overcome the credibility gap is often used by the Liberal Democrats (Cutts, 2013) to overcome the difficulties of First Past The Post. Nigel Farage has recognised the need to learn from how the “Liberal Democrats had navigated Britain’s difficult electoral system by knocking on doors and building local bastions of support” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014:241.) UKIP’s recognition of the need to move beyond a European-focused party in campaigning terms has allowed them to make inroads. In the 2013 local elections, UKIP won 147 council seats and achieved 827 second places. In 2014, they won 163 seats. If UKIP could continue to build upon this, the party could begin to build local ‘bastions’ of support and infrastructure, from which it can mount serious challenges in target seats. However, the party will still face the problem that the main parties enjoy far more exposure during General Election campaigns. Further, while the building of local infrastructure and canvassing may just take time to see rewards, the electoral system remains a “formidable” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014:254) barrier for UKIP. Altogether this supply side factor still represents the most significant obstacle preventing UKIP from becoming a major force in Britain.


Cutts, D. (2013). Local Elections as a ‘Stepping Stone’: Does Winning Council Seats Boost the Liberal Democrats’ Performance in General Elections? Political Studies. doi: 10.1111/1467-9248.12029.

Downes, J. (2014). What explains the rise of Minor Parties in the United Kingdom since 1997? University of Essex Research Journal, 6 (1)

Duverger, M. (1954). Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. New York: Wiley.

Ford, R, Goodwin, M. (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Ford, R, Goodwin, M. (2014b). Why the UK’s East Coast is Ripe for a UKIP Incursion Available: Accessed: 16/10/14.

Kitschelt, H. (1995). The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.

Rydgren, J. (2007). The Sociology of the Radical Right. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, pp. 241-282.
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