Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Do "third" parties matter?

Minor parties can matter in more ways than we usually imagine.

The UKIP insurgency
How… to explain the rise of Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an insurgent… outfit devoted to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union? Once a near-irrelevance, UKIP haunts the thoughts of politicians across Westminster. The explanation lies in Mr Farage’s talent for turning both Britain’s voting system and its traditions of pomposity-pricking mockery to his advantage.

UKIP does not need to win a single House of Commons seat at the next general election to have an outsized impact. The party just needs to threaten, credibly, to siphon off enough Conservative votes to deny David Cameron’s party victory in a decisive number of seats: a disastrous fate in a first-past-the-post system…

Battered by grim economic news and a string of government U-turns, the Conservatives are some ten points behind Labour in the polls. Almost two-thirds of Tory voters say that they would like to leave the EU. On the party’s right, the fact that Mr Cameron wants to stay in the union… fuels suspicion that he is not a proper Conservative…

Though UKIP draws some support from the left… recent gains have come disproportionately from Tory ranks…

At a recent public meeting outside Bristol, in south-west England, Mr Farage played the packed room (Tory-faithful types, ranging from pensioners in blazers to brawny small businessmen) like a virtuoso…. Mr Farage told the crowd what it wanted to hear. Britain is run by “college kids”. The dead of two world wars are being betrayed by Westminster politicians “impotent” to defend democracy. Britain has turned its back on its “kith and kin” in the Commonwealth. It is an “outrage” that eastern Europeans can come and claim benefits…

In short, UKIP is trying something ambitious: upbeat protest politics for angry, anti-political voters. Will this achieve Mr Farage’s short-term goal of supplanting the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party? It may not matter. Mr Farage’s real dream is to reshape Britain, by pulling the Conservatives to the right and bouncing Mr Cameron into a referendum on EU membership. If he pulls that off, his insurgency will be no laughing matter.

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