What can account for UKIP’s remarkable surge in support in these elections? The conventional wisdom is that UKIP is now the ‘go to’ party for protest voters. Angry over Europe and immigration? Vote UKIP. Fear for your job and the future of the economy? Vote UKIP. Feel the main parties are ‘all the same’, run by metropolitan elites who don’t know how ordinary people live? Vote UKIP.
There is doubtless something in all of the above, but there is perhaps another explanation – overlooked until now – for UKIP’s rise: the growing tide of English patriotism.
Earlier in the year, figures from the 2011 census showed there had been a dramatic strengthening of English national identity in the last decade. Fully 70 per cent of the English population identified themselves as either solely English or English in combination with some other national identity.
Now new data from a survey conducted by IPPR with Cardiff and Edinburgh universities shows that English identity is not just getting stronger, it is becoming politicised.
And UKIP seems to be the main beneficiary of this important trend that is beginning to make its presence felt in English political life.
The reason is that it is exactly those voters who feel more strongly English who also believe that England is getting a raw deal from its membership of both the European Union and the current political settlement in the United Kingdom. Englishness is also more closely associated with concerns about immigration and globalisation. The inter-relation between these issues provides a significant opportunity for UKIP to further deepen its electoral appeal in England.
In the past UKIP has been reluctant to play the English card, for fear it might muddy their position on Europe and weaken the union. Yet their support is heavily concentrated in England, and it is England where anti-EU sentiment is strongest. And the widely held view that England has being neglected by an out of touch and remote political elite also works very effectively with their populist critique of mainstream politics.
All of this means that the Conservatives are being pushed off the ‘green and pleasant’ turf that they have always regarded as naturally theirs.
UKIP now tops the list of the parties that voters believe ‘best stands up for the interests of England’ with 21 per cent compared with Labour’s 19 per cent and the Conservatives 17 per cent. Moreover UKIP’s level of support on this question has more than doubled in just two years.
Even more strikingly, people who voted Conservative at 2010 general election are almost evenly split on the party who they believe best stands up for England. 38 per cent say the Conservatives, 34 per cent say UKIP – and the number of Tories opting for UKIP has almost doubled from 18 per cent in 2011.
As they have on other issues, UKIP seems to be stealing a march on the Tories on increasingly fertile political territory. Tory high command will be worried enough about today’s result – but if UKIP was to more explicitly champion the cause of English nationalism it could, it seems, erode Conservative support still further.
Guy Lodge is Associate Director at IPPR. The findings from the Future of England Survey will be published in full by IPPR later this summer.