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Expert Comment: UKIP's first Member of Parliament

UKIP Friday 10 October 2014

As the UK Independence Party wins its first by-election, Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes examines the party's long-term prospects.

Thursday 9th October was a good day for the UK Independence Party, as they won their first ever House of Commons seat in the Clacton by-election and came close to claiming a second seat in the Heywood and Middleton constituency in Manchester. They have certainly caught the attention of the main parties and of the press. But is this the prelude to a major breakthrough in the 2015 general election?

There is certainly plenty of evidence that voters are frustrated with politics and turned off by the mainstream parties and turning to protest parties – and not just in the UK, but throughout Europe. Such parties have done very well in many elections recently, ranging from far-right parties in France and Hungary to regionalist parties in Belgium and Spain to populist groups such as the Italian Five-Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo to left-wing groups such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. And UKIP certainly reflect a similar brand of anti-establishment politics in the UK.

But there are also reasons for caution. By-elections (and, indeed, European elections, the other arena where UKIP have had considerable success) are notoriously unreliable barometers of how people will behave in a general election. And even if UKIP does have a successful result in May next year, it could be the start of their problems. There is plenty of evidence of populist protest parties struggling to make the shift from shouting abuse from outside the parliamentary tent to actually having to participate in parliamentary affairs.

UKIP’s dismal record in the European Parliament – very poor attendance and non-participation – might possibly be excused on the grounds that they are opposed to the EU. But a similar strategy in the House of Commons would be very hard to justify. It is interesting to note that the Five-Star Movement has struggled to translate exceptional electoral success into a viable force in the Italian parliament.

The protest parties that seem to be best placed to make an effective transition from external opposition to finding a role within parliament are those with a clear and complete political agenda. However, UKIP’s anti-EU stance is too much of a single issue to be a viable basis for developing a full parliamentary programme.  The party will undoubtedly have more successful days. But I am not at all sure that these will lead to UKIP becoming a significant force in British politics. Instead, they are still likely to prove to be just a flash in the pan.

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