Overcoming the barriers to entry
In September 2013, Jos é Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, and so a b ê te noire for Eurosceptics, provided UKIP with an unexpected publicity boost when he predicted the party would win the 2014 European Parliament elections, and despite David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. ‘When it comes to being against Europe’, Mr Barroso argued, ‘people prefer the original to the copy.’ 1 Nigel Farage was delighted with the compliment paid by his old rival, but he and his party were already looking beyond the 2014 European elections, where they knew they could perform well, towards the greater challenge of the 2015 general election. UKIP’s goal was now to become a credible force in domestic politics by winning seats in Westminster, and towards the end of 2013 they laid out how they planned to achieve it: by fi ghting every constituency at the general election in 2015. Elaborating on the strategy, Farage had a clear message for voters: ‘If you really want a referendum you make sure that UKIP win the Euro elections next year to keep the pressure on and then you make sure that UKIP has decent representation in the House of Commons.’ 2
But as senior Ukippers were also painfully aware, the quest to win seats in Westminster would once again bring them face-to-face with a formidable barrier that had broken many political revolts in British history: the fi rst-past-the-post electoral system. This is not like systems used in many European countries, or in British elections to the European Parliament, because it takes no account of parties’ overall popularity. Voters choose one candidate in their local constituency, and the candidate who wins the most votes gets the
seat. Parties who fail to win local contests receive no representation at all, regardless of their overall haul of votes. This presents a profound challenge for insurgents like UKIP, who have to build, or discover, concentrated pools of support that are suffi cient to win locally. If, for example, UKIP won 20 per cent of the national vote but this was spread evenly across the country with no constituency victories, they would still fi nish with no seats and no voice in Westminster, despite having won support from one voter in fi ve. On the other hand, a small party like Plaid Cymru in Wales, whose vote is concentrated in a small number of local strongholds, can achieve a presence in Westminster despite winning only a tiny share of the overall national vote.