UKIP gains: good news for British Europhiles?

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Bad news for British Europhiles: the UK Independence Party, a group of bullishly Eurosceptic upstarts, did remarkably well in local elections (and one by-election) this week. 

Good news for British Europhiles: UKIP did remarkably well in those elections. 

On the face of it the former is correct. UKIP won around 25% of the vote in wards where it had candidates: impressive showing worthy of a major political party. Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, noted:

"This is the day when those dubbed "clowns, loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists" may find it hard to resist the temptation to laugh in the face of their detractors in the established political parties. It is the day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land."

This will no doubt increase the pressure on David Cameron from his more Eurosceptic MPs for him to take a tougher line on Europe, with many glancing nervously over their shoulders at the amount of votes UKIP candidates might take from them in a general election. UKIP's best lines are mostly to do with Europe, and without a doubt Euroscepticism contributed to their victory.

But on the other hand... This vote can also be seen as the moment when UKIP left the comfort zone of being a noisy, populist Eurosceptic pressure group and pulled on the mantle of being a serious political party, dealing in tricky policy areas such as the welfare state, tax reform, and defence. They've mentioned these before, not always convincingly, but the Eurobashing always covered up more serious scrutiny. 

They could get away with this in the European Parliament, where they hold several seats, because, well, it's the EP. In local councils they will be under much more scrutiny - and in local elections it's unlikely that all their votes came because of strong platforms on European issues. And with these successes the Labour Party will also be looking over its shoulders - many commentators have argued that UKIP is morphing from Eurosceptic protest movement into a more general party of the disgruntled working classes, and therefore a direct threat to Labour as well as the Conservaties. 

So if you're a British Europhile, take heart. Populist protest movements sound most convincing when shouting from the sidelines. When they have to deal with responsibility and a wider range of tricky issues, they find the going much harder. And when they threaten both of the major parties, there is a strong chance that those two parties will suddenly find more solidarity and less cheap politicking on issues that give that protest movement air. This 25% could be the high water mark of UKIP's power. And then I might not feel so silly in arguing in ECFR's "Ten trends for 2013" that "The British debate over Europe becomes less toxic."

 

 

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