Euroscepticism and the protest vote: Do voters really support UKIP policies?

This blog post is the third in a series of posts that come from students of our Politics of the European Union undergraduate course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to European integration. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of Europe, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

zackProfilePolThe United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) has had a history of apprehension with regard to its membership within the European Union (EU), and closer regional, economic and political integration therein (Fitzgibbon: 2013; 105). This piece will examine the relationship between Euroscepticism in the UK and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), assess the support base for UKIP and will address the theories which seek to explain the support for UKIP.

Euroscepticism can be broadly defined as a movement which opposes the European Union, but which does not necessarily oppose closer European integration (Kopecky & Muddle: 2002; 297-326). British Euroscepticism can be explained through a variety of theories. The first, examined by Ben Wellings, analyses the view Britain held of Europe that saw ‘European integration as the ultimate institutional expression of British decline’ (2010; 488). Another idea espoused by Chris Gifford notes that Euroscepticism was only allowed enter the political mainstream because of a structural crisis in British party politics, while noting that Euroscepticism was a ‘distinct and powerful national movement asserting conceptions of Britain’s exceptional national identity’ (2006; 851). Finally, Fabio Serricchio et al note that ‘national identity and political institutions play an increasingly important role in explaining public Euroscepticism’ (2013; 51).

A political manifestation of Euroscepticism in the UK can be found in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections acquired 16.5% of the British vote (Whitaker & Lynch: 2014; 359). UKIP has its strongest support base within England, and those that support UKIP identify the EU as playing the dominant role in how their country is governed, while simultaneously asserting that this is a negative issue (Jones: 2013). Richard Wyn Jones cites data which suggests a correlation between an English identity and Euroscepticism, and notes that those who would identify themselves as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ would tend to oppose European integration further (2013). Aggregate data also suggests that a) UKIP should do better in areas where people are employed by agriculture or fisheries b) UKIP support is more common among older voters and c) UKIP outperforms the UK’s far-right party, the British Nationalist Party, in more affluent areas (Whitaker & Lynch: 2014; 362-363).

The support base of UKIP has remained mostly unchanged since its inception, but the party’s policies with regard to the EU and how it would represent itself in the European Parliament have continued to change. Data provided by Whitaker et al (2011; 738-739) demonstrate that UKIP has changed its strategy with regard to the EU; when the party was first established its candidates did not initially sit in the European Parliament (EP), however this soon changed due to UKIP candidates’ support for taking their EP seats; over 90% were in favour of ending the boycott of the Parliament, while over 70% agreed that UKIP candidates should join an existing political party within that Parliament (Whitaker et al: 2011; 738). This meant that UKIP candidates were soon represented in the EP, though they faced the distinct challenge of being the party whose sole aim was withdrawal from the EU, and this led to a difficult relationship with any other party in the EP with whom the UKIP attempted to form an alliance, since most Eurosceptic parties favoured EU reform over EU withdrawal (2011; 740). A theory holds that UKIP serves as a ‘protest vote’ against the British national government; as British citizens see European Parliament elections as a chance to punish the British government by placing in the EP a party that opposes Britain’s membership within the EU, and whose sole aim, supported by 99% of the party (2011; 741) is withdrawal from the EU (Marsh: 1998; 593). A protest vote is a case where ‘some voters may make an insincere or protest vote for UKIP, a party that they would not normally support, in order to register a message of discontent’ (Whitaker & Lynch: 2014; 363).

The idea of using UKIP as a protest vote provides support for the theory which states that the EU is perceived in terms of national issues. Voting UKIP at a European level demonstrates one’s dissatisfaction with home affairs, therefore ‘we would thus expect protest voters in European elections to exhibit high levels of dissatisfaction with the major parties and low levels of trust in the political system’ (Whitaker & Lynch: 2014; 363-364). British citizens may therefore be placing UKIP candidates in the European Parliament because they are unhappy with the British government, and not necessarily because they identify with UKIP ideologically. This further provides support for the theory because it demonstrates that these British citizens do not consider European elections as critical in their importance as national elections, and see them instead as a second order election. A second order election is the case where ‘voters perceive there to be less at stake than in first-order contests that determine the composition of the national government’ (Reif & Schmitt, 1980; 5).

Euroscepticism within the UK thus correlates to a degree with citizen satisfaction on a national level. The idea of a referendum in the UK regarding EU membership has been a hotly debated issue over the previous few years (Fitzgibbon: 2013; 114), but it was David Cameron’s recent announcement in particular that he would ensure a referendum was held should he be re-elected that was especially significant (Usherwood: 2014). The reason for its significance is that, as Usherwood notes;

“Rather than being a vote about something that hasn’t yet happened (as was the case with the Tories’ passing intentions on the Lisbon Treaty), this would be about the status quo. Moreover, it would not be about some aspect of integration, but the entire process” (2014).

Only through a referendum on EU membership could one ascertain for certain whether UKIP’s gains in the European Parliament were as a result of genuine support, or due to a British protest levelled at its national government. It is with the findings of such a referendum that Britain’s relationship with Euroscepticism can finally be definitively assessed.

Zach Twamley is a final year student studying a B.A. in History and Politics at UCD. He plans to start an M.A. in the History of International Relations in September 2014. He produces a history podcast that considers wars throughout history and the causes behind them that can be found here.

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