He’s one of the most charismatic characters in British politics, and it’s difficult to imagine much of a future for the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with him leading it.
Nevertheless, Nigel Farage, the investment-banker-turned-beer-swilling-bloke-next-door, has pledged to stand down as UKIP’s leader if he fails to win election to the House of Commons on May 7 from the constituency of South Thanet. At best, some polls give Farage a slight lead; many other polls, however, suggest Farage is locked in a three-way fight with his Conservative and Labour challengers. The race to win South Thanet, a constituency in the southeastern corner of England in Kent, has kept the UKIP leader focused on winning his own high-stakes contest instead of zipping throughout the country to bolster the party’s chances nationally.
Farage, who is also a member of the European Parliament, is unlikely to fade away, even if he loses. He presumably remain a colorful presence in British and European politics, especially if prime minister David Cameron wins a second term and holds a referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union in 2017.
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But Farage’s loss would highlight the shrinking fortunes of UKIP, just a year after it won more votes in the European parliamentary elections than any other party as British voters lodged protest votes over growing EU influence. Farage, in the afterglow of his unprecedented victory, hoped to ride a populist wave into 2015 on a platform that questions the value of the country’s membership in the European Union, restricts growing immigration to the United Kingdom, and rebalances a constitutional structure that’s left England, as a region, out of the devolution trend that’s given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland more regional control.
It’s hard not to like Farage when he’s lined up in a room with Conservative prime minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democratic deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. He’s got swagger and charisma in droves. He’s never far from being photographed in a pub sipping on a pint of beer, and he’s one of the most talented politicians in the United Kingdom. For all the nastiness of UKIP’s fringes, a party that Cameron once dismissed as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,’ Farage and his merry band of ‘Kippers’ make a compelling case with respect to both the European Union and English nationalism.
You don’t have to agree with Farage’s uncompromising brand of euroscepticism to see that the European Union’s lack of democratic accountability has eroded its credibility over time. Nevertheless, as the UK’s economy improves, voters seem to be backing away from a so-called ‘Brexit’ that could damage the British economy and its transatlantic relations. There’s no way to know how British voters will feel in 2017 in a potential referendum, of course, but Farage’s popularity has receded as the EU issue has lost its potency.
You also don’t have to buy into Farage’s campy English nationalism to admit that the United Kingdom has some serious constitutional imbalances. Even as Westminster has devolved increasing powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, their MPs continue to influence English policymaking. That’s especially true in 2015, when either Scottish or Northern Irish parties could hold the balance of power in the House of Commons.
Even though it’s more ideologically aligned with the Conservatives, the party draws a surprising amount of support from working-class Labour supporters as well. Voters across the ideological spectrum favor UKIP’s immigration policies over either the Tories or Labour. That’s one reason why Farage has tried to bolster UKIP’s support in northern England, where voters long ago abandoned the Conservatives, but are also disenchanted with a Labour Party that’s increasingly viewed as driven by elites in London.
Taking advantage of anti-immigrant sentiment when the British economy was still in the doldrums, Farage argues strenuously that British borders should not be open to foreigners from Eastern and Central Europe, above all for the burden he alleges that they place on the country’s National Health Service. But Farage can take this line of reasoning way too far, making both himself and his party seem cruel and indecent. He drew widespread derision for arguing, in the only leader’s debate in April, that 60% of all HIV patients in the NHS were foreign nationals.
On the last weekend of the campaign, Farage has been reduced to attacking the BBC for excluding him from the Question Time debate among Clegg, Cameron and Miliband this week. That’s not a position of strength heading into the election next Thursday.
UKIP is still set to win between 10% and 15% of the vote. The average of most polls put UKIP at around 13% nationally, but the party has overperformed polls in past elections. But that will translate into few seats for UKIP — probably no more than four nationwide — because the United Kingdom uses a first-past-the-post electoral system in each of 650 separate constituencies. A year ago, Farage had hoped UKIP might break through in dozens of constituencies.
That doesn’t seem likely. Douglas Carswell, who defected from the Conservatives to UKIP, is likely to hold onto his seat in Clacton. Mark Reckless, another UKIP defector, is in a tough race in Rochester and Strood, where Conservatives could regain the seat from their own one-time MP. In Thurrock, yet another seat in England’s southeast, UKIP’s Tim Aker has a strong shot of winning. Propsects dwindle from there.
Part of the problem is that other third parties, like the Greens and the Scottish nationalists, have crowded the spotlight. The other problem is that some UKIP voters may be thinking strategically about supporting the Tories or Labour. Without enough support to win many constituencies, UKIP could nonetheless play a role as a spoiler, winning enough votes to split the right and deliver more seats to Labour (or, in some cases, split enough votes with Labour to boost the Conservatives).
That doesn’t mean UKIP or Farage is doomed. In a 2017 vote, he’ll be in his best role — playing the scrappy champion of the everyman when Cameron and the major parties will almost certainly line up in favor of remaining in the European Union. But that doesn’t mean 2015 will necessarily work out in Farage’s favor.