Politics is fill of geological metaphors. One can witness seismic shifts in a political landscape or eruptions of feeling. Sometimes a party will win an election so convincingly it can be described as having a tidal wave of support or as having won a landslide victory. Recently, British politics has been haunted by the promise of political earthquake, which is a new one at least.
When it comes of these tectonic changes in politics, Britain does fairly well. The late nineties saw the Tories swallowed up by the earth and one of those aforementioned landslides bring Labour to power. Two decades beforehand the reverse was true. Long before that, in the General Election of 1945, the British people rejected Churchill in favour of Attlee and Bevan in another landslide that brought about the creation of the welfare state. Despite a reputation for quiet politeness, when the British people don’t like their leaders they’re more that prepared to show it.
Real earthquakes, on the other hand, don’t happen very often in Britain and when they do, they’re hardly worth mentioning. The occasional tremor that, where it to occur in Tokyo or on the San Andreas fault, would be practically ignored. Perhaps then, the political earthquake Nigel Farage has been promising us all these past few weeks is much closer to the British version of the real thing.
At the time of writing, with some results still to come in from local elections and no news of the European poll until Sunday, UKIP are actually doing worse than they were this time last year. They are projected to finish with around 17% of the national vote, in third place but six percent less than in the 2013 local elections. They now have 139 councillors across the UK but still do not control a single council, the closest they look likely to come to this is in a few places where they will share power with the Tories (ironic, considering their vow not to do so on a national scale). They have made impressive electoral gains, especially in Essex and in some traditional Labour areas in the north, but nothing to merit the geomorphic hyperbole of the campaign trail. No earthquake or landslide or eruption of feeling. Just a small tremor, noticeable but not lasting.
Of course the opinion polls suggest that come Sunday night, when the results of the European poll are known, UKIP supporters will have more to cheer about. It is almost certain that they will come out the winners, but will support the party’s claim that they are now ‘serious players‘ in British politics?
No, not really. It will just confirm that people vote for UKIP when they don’t think it will matter. Despite Nigel Farage’s claim that 70% of Britain’s laws are now ‘made in Europe’ (a complete fallacy, in case you were wondering), the EU has a much more indirect role on the everyday lives of British voters than that of the local council or the House of Commons. MEPs operate in a separate system to MPs or councillors. They’re voted to represent massive constituencies using a method of polling unfamiliar to British voters. Their actions in Brussels receive the bare minimum of coverage in the British press and European elections have low turnouts. In short, it is much harder for most people to imagine an MEP changing their life than their MP or councillor (this, of course, does massive disservice to those hard working MEPs behind the best of EU legislation). Just as the BNP once exploited general apathy and ignorance about the European Parliament to make headline grabbing gains, so does UKIP.
This doesn’t mean that UKIP’s rise in popularity shouldn’t be of concern, but rather that such concern should be measured by the reality of their position. Still essentially a party held together by the personality of one man, UKIP is a house built on sand. Having declared victory it now has to bring the pre-election talk of earthquakes of change to life, but without any real political power how can it do so? When it comes to the issues in the faces of voters, like fixing potholes and building schools, UKIP has yet to be trusted to act. And how can it be? A party based on a single divisive issue with no coherent line on domestic policy is not suited to government. When it comes down to the issues that really matter to people, and the EU is not one of them, the voters are going to trust parties they known will do something, rather than one with a track record of doing nothing.