When does a protest vote stop being a protest?

by Ben Mitchell

When it commands 9% of the vote and sits in third place in the polls, overtaking the Tory-led government’s junior partner.

That’s what happened this week when a YouGov poll put UKIP on 9%, one point ahead of the Lib Dems. The first time this phenomenon has occurred.

As is often the way when the smaller parties make inroads at the expense of the big three, a spot of panicking breaks out, the scratching and ruffling of hair, followed by the soul searching. At least two of these were probably true if you were a Conservative.

How much of a danger do parties like UKIP really pose? Surely, it’s typical to give the government a bashing two years into their term? Especially one feeling exposed, without a majority of its own to fall back on.

Nothing more than a bit of fun and games. When push comes to shove, supporters will flock back to their masters. When it really matters, on polling day, they’ll revert to type.

Or they won’t.

It’s right, as one commentator noted this week, that to treat UKIP as a political force is certainly over-doing it.

They don’t have a single MP, control only one small council, and saw their leader, Nigel Farage, humiliated at the last general election, beaten into third place by Flipper – a guy dressed as a dolphin in protest at the ‘flipping’ of homes scandal that beset MPs that year. Something that the speaker, John Bercow, whose seat he was challenging, got caught up in.

Whichever way you look at it, UKIP’s rise mirrors that of the fourth column: ‘Others.’

The Greens have their own MP, the likeable Caroline Lucas, and are the biggest presence on Brighton council, and in a strong position to replicate this success in Norwich.

The nationalists in Scotland are so popular that only in England are we daft enough to refer to them as one of the ‘Other’ parties. In Scotland, they’re the government, and yet still have six MPs down in Westminster.

It’s credit to their remarkable rise since devolution (although they have been around since 1934) that they now dominate the political landscape up there, trampling over each and every opponent.

At the last general election, ‘Others’ made up 11.9% of the vote. This of course also includes the nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the likes of UKIP and the SNP.

This pattern, the rise of the so-called protest vote, has been with us for some time.

A glance at the Guardian/ICM polls, carried out every month since 1984, indicates just when the Other grew in prominence.

Back then, and without UKIP and devolution in Scotland and Wales, Others captured between just 1 and 2% of the vote.

Support grew steadily for the next 20 years, hovering around the 4-6% mark.

The breakthrough seems to come around 2003 (The Iraq war, a coincidence?), where it rarely drops below 7%, and starts to make inroads into double-figures. Since 2007, Others have consistently polled at anything between 10-13%.

Agreeing on why Other parties’ votes eat into the big three is fraught with difficulty. Partly because every pundit on the left and right has his/her own theory, unable to settle on a consensus, and partly because the electorate are more volatile now than ever before.

If I had to sum up in one word why the likes of the SNP, and to a much lesser extent UKIP, attract so much support, it’d be this one: simplicity.

They offer voters a clear, unambiguous, blunt message.

For the SNP, it’s the chance of independence: a once in a generation opportunity to break free from the shackles of the detached, Westminster elite.

That, and a whole range of unashamedly left-wing, Old Labour, policies: free NHS prescriptions, free eye tests, no tuition fees.

And for this, they have never been so popular: latest polls showing the SNP stretching their lead over Labour to 18 points. Almost half of Scots consistently back the party. Half. Can you imagine any of our parties getting anywhere near that figure anytime soon?

UKIP wows its own with the promise to withdraw, once and for all, from the EU. Why? As their website explains:

“Not because we hate Europe, or foreigners, or anyone at all, but because it is undemocratic, expensive, bossy – and we still haven’t been asked whether we want to be in it.”

Politics doesn’t come any simpler than that.

A referendum on EU membership was promised, then taken away. Voters know that only UKIP will grant them one. Whether they actually want one is a moot point.

On immigration, an issue we know still chimes with voters, they call for an end to mass, uncontrolled, immigration, as well as an immediate five year freeze on people coming into Britain.

Dog-whistle politics, aimed at the lowest common denominator. And popular. To hand them a campaign slogan, you know where you stand with UKIP.

If the Tories aren’t worried, they should be. Reports indicate that 10% of Conservative voters are ready to jump ship and back UKIP next month.

Tim Montgomerie, influential champion of the Tory grassroots, has put the frighteners on the party by hinting of possible defections by two MPs to UKIP.

This isn’t just about the threat to the Conservatives.

We know that a number of disaffected working class Labour voters have switched to the far right BNP. Not in anywhere near the numbers that UKIP gets, but they’re still lost Labour supporters.

After the BNP’s success in 2009’s local and European elections (winning almost 1 million votes, or a 6.2% share), the party was warned not to dismiss this as a mere protest vote, but:

“…rather something profound at work way beyond the Westminster bubble…A consistent voting pattern is emerging, partly driven by material concerns linked to issues of class and race. Yet the notion of the “protest” vote absolves parties from addressing their own shortcomings and the policy issues that are deemed unfashionable within SW1.”

It’s only our antiquated, disproportionate voting system that has prevented any UKIP or BNP members being parachuted into parliament.

Labour should be thanking their lucky stars there isn’t a left wing UKIP equivalent.

The Respect party are still too small to make any impact at a national level, bar what we saw with last month’s cult of the personality.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be an irritation at a local level, with seats on the Bradford council a target on May 3rd.

The mainstream parties need to understand that protest voters have stopped protesting. They have settled on parties that offer them something plain, straightforward, and easy to relate to.

Differences between the big three are far too nuanced and confusing for many voters to comprehend. They don’t have the time or the inclination to leaf through manifestos, or look at how Labour would tackle the deficit, and which services they would or wouldn’t cut.

The charge that they’re all the same no longer rings true. The Others are not the same, and the public know it. That’s why they’re drawn to them.

Ben Mitchell is an activist and blogs at Ben Mitchell Writes

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8 Responses to “When does a protest vote stop being a protest?”

  1. Nick says:

    The mainstream parties need to understand that protest voters have stopped protesting


    They have decided that you’re a bunch of thieving liars. From expenses to the fundamental fraud in government over debts.

    Then they looked to the others, and said fix it, and they haven’t done a thing about it.

    Conclusion, you’re all in it together.

    For example, where were the prosecutions for the 50%+ of MPs who signed forms fraudulently to get money? Where is the prosecutions for the interest on that money?

    Not a peep. The reason is clear, the majority of MPs were scamming us.

    It carries on, and you wont’ do anything about it.

  2. swatantra says:

    UKIP The Greens and Respect are all still single issue Parties despite what they say. They have nothing else to offer. But you are right some voters are just one dimensional in their limited way of thinking, and so will opt for them as a protest vote. But thank goodness these voters are few in number. Britain is still a Party based Democracy and will remain so.

  3. Rallan says:

    Not at all sure about your analysis here. It’s not a problem of overly ‘nuanced’ messages coming from the main parties. It’s simply this; no one respects or believes the major party politicians. And it’s their own fault.

    You may like Ed Miliband. You may like what he says. But do you respect him? Honestly? What has he done to earn that respect? What does his life and track record say about him, really? Would you pick him as your team leader? What about the rest of the Labour politicians?

    Look at Labour today. A track record of economic catastrophe, a party controlled through in-crowd “inheritance” by brothers, sisters & husband-wife teams. All women shortlists, one won by a HUSBAND of the top Labour party feminist! Hypocrisy in every shadow, tax avoidance, expenses, property-flipping, cash for honours, cash for access, cash for influence, union control, fix ups, frame ups, coups, millionaire socialists, blind-eyes turned to electoral fraud, dirty pursuit of divisive racial/religious groups, endless London lawyers and not one single days work experience between the entire shadow cabinet. Years just spewing endless negativity, no positive message, just a party now trading on bought votes, unaffordable promises and simply “keeping the tories out”.

    Are the conservatives or LibDems any better? Somewhat, for now. But only because they haven’t been in government for a long while. But there’s plenty wrong there too. At least they have a clear, positive mission (whether you agree with it or not). But even I (as a Tory) think the conservatives have some dodgy friends and that in power they would/will soon fall into the same corruption.

    It’s the entire political class that’s gone irrevocably wrong. None of the major politicians show any respect to the electorate or the nation, and the people have increasing contempt for all of them.

    Whether you’re on the left or the right, it doesn’t matter because our leaders are just not listening. Why pretend? You know it’s true.

    We’re all just voting statistics and occasional living props for TV such as Question Time, where a selected audience will be put on public show to make predictable noises and pretend it made a difference. It’s the same with these blogs. What difference does it make? Nothing is being achieved by engaging with (and being disregarded by) the main parties. They lie to us with every breath/headline and think it’s all part of a game. They’re barely even pretending that our views matter any more. Bigoted woman, anyone?

    The Political establishment resists change and doesn’t care what the people want. Frustration will continue to grow. The internet will continue to empower real people, swelling new politics, revealing sins and solidifying ideas. The current political system will fragment, unwilling/unable to cope, and the main parties will be severely diminished. Politicians will be forced to deal with the people at last.

    It’s inevitable, and it’s for the best. I hope.

  4. Erica Blair says:

    Time for the Blairites to follow their leader and join the Tory Party.


  5. swatantra says:

    He may have switched to catholicism but as far as I know Tony’s still with Labour.

  6. Clr Ralph says:

    No doubt with the cash loving lefties filling their pockets too led by Livingstone.

    You are all as bad as each other with the “Blairite” condemnations meaningless as you have all abandoned any concept of public service or commitment to the electorate.

    The net result of your polices, as laughable as they are is the same…public suffer, your leaders and their families get richer. You might as well all be “Blairites” as far as it matters to the public it makes no difference.

  7. BenM says:


    “Look at Labour today. A track record of economic catastrophe”

    Historically the Tory tack record is worse.

    There’s much more of a myth – spread by overweening Tory presence in the press – surrounding the appearance of Tory economic competence.

    But Labour have never run up unemployment to over 3 million. Tories racked up £300bn in debt prior to 1997 and so are no angels there either.

    Most of all, the economic model that crashed into the wall in 2008 was that set up and lauded by the Tories themselves – with massive over reliance on useless financial services, a withering of heavy industry and so on.

    Tories whine about levels of welfare, but were the ones who chucked millions on the sick to massage dole queue numbers.

    So, the Tory economic record is dire.

    It is no surprise to those not in hoc to crank supply side doctrines that the Austerity drive has utterly failed. You can’t force down a deficit through cutting expenditure in a slump. To think this is possible is to expose a striking level of economic ignorance. An ignorance running through the Tory ranks in spades.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    BenM…a bit of historical wishful thinking here I’m afraid; Blair, Brown and Darling have only themselves to blame…that’s what comes of aping the Tories I suppose.
    As for the Gnats (SNP)…well, as Lord Foulkes said, the SNP are only popular because ‘they keep doing things people like and understand’. Actually, continually siding with the Tories (and the Glib-Dumbs too, but who really cares?) against the Gnats on absolutely anything and everything works better for the Tories than it does for Labour. The Tories look venal, but Labour looks positively stupid.
    There is a view that Labour must stop apologising for the past, and that is true, but there does need to be a bit of accepting responsibility first.
    An example? In Edinburgh Labour is trying to blame the SNP for the Trams, conveniently forgetting that all the opposition parties teamed up to force the Gnats (minority government at that time) to carry on with the project although they were very keen to scrap it for no better reason that it had been a stupid idea in the first place.
    Another example? McConnell and Blair proudly chose a system designed to prevent the Gnats (and only the Gnats) from winning a Holyrood election and now various MPs blame the system because the Gnats won anyway.

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