They’re an upstart political movement intent on “taking back” the country from an out-of-touch political elite accused of ignoring opposition to immigration and threats to what they consider the nation’s Christian heritage.
The insurgents, many of them self-styled libertarians, have marched from one electoral success to another and are pushing the country’s dominant right-wing party even further to the right.
On one side of the Atlantic, that scenario might feel familiar to anyone who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. Yet in this case it is Britain’s Conservative Party leadership, not Republicans, who are feeling the heat. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which a poll on Tuesday put just two percentage points behind the Conservative Party itself, is on the rise and transforming British politics.
The record high of 22 percent for the UKIP comes after the most important chapter in its transition from the political fringes to the mainstream, when it won more than 140 seats in the English county councils earlier this month, snatching many from the Conservatives and beating the centrist Liberal Democrats into fourth place nationally.
Although UKIP was established to campaign for a British withdrawal from the European Union, it is evolving into a magnet for discontent about a range of issues including immigration and moves by the government to legalize gay marriage and is establishing itself as the foremost port of call for voters seeking to give a black eye to Westminster's three largest parties.
"An exit from the EU is the start of the journey, the key in the door," says Ray Finch, the leader of a crop of new UKIP councillors who ousted Conservatives from the county council of Hampshire, a southern coast county that has traditionally been regarded as a heartland of Prime Minister David Cameron's party. "What we generally are looking towards as a party is to reduce the power of the state and the size of the state, get it out of people's lives as much as possible so that they can live without being continually harassed, spied upon, and continually taxed."
From protest to power
Few commentators expect UKIP to pick up large numbers of seats, if any, at the next election in 2015, primarily due to the way the mechanics of Britain's electoral system mitigate against parties whose support is spread out. Many also still view support for UKIP as a mid-term protest vote while opponents seize on what they regard as the “false promise” of its manifesto – which combines large-scale tax cuts with promises of investments in healthcare, education, and infrastructure along with dramatically increased spending on defense.
Nevertheless, its dramatic rise as a political force has rattled Conservative MPs, increasing the ranks pushing for Cameron to take a hardline position on future membership of the EU. This week saw the latest rebellion by MPs from his own party, who attempted to interfere with the legislative passage of the gay marriage plans, a central plank of Cameron's attempts to transform the party's image, but which are opposed by many activists, MPs, and even some Tory cabinet ministers.
Further pressure was heaped on his leadership when the Conservative Party's co-chairman, who is also a member of Cameron's inner circle, was forced to fend off allegations that he had dismissed his party's activists as “swivel-eyed loons” during a conversation with journalists.
"Loongate," which fed a Tory rebel narrative seeking to depict the Cameron leadership as a metropolitan elite divorced from the needs and instincts of the grassroots, has been seized on by UKIP's own leader Nigel Farage, a gregarious former stockbroker seemingly seldom photographed without a cigarette and a pint in his hand.
In a bid to woo disenchanted Conservatives, he took out a full-page ad in the right-leaning Daily Telegraph on Monday in which he accused Britain's political class of being "completely out of touch with the thoughts of ordinary people."
"Only an administration run by a bunch of college kids, none of whom have ever had a proper job in their lives, could so arrogantly write off their own supporters," wrote Farage, describing the loon comment as "the ultimate insult."
Labour inroads, too
It's not just the Tories who are being damaged by UKIP. Last week the party won a council by-election in a northern English area regarded as a stronghold of the Labour Party. Statistics also show that UKIP has tended to draw support from blue-collar workers and voters on low incomes – all groups that are the traditional bedrock for the left-of-center opposition party.
Some analysts caution against reading too much into the UKIP by-election win in Labour's northern heartland.
“I would say they are less of a threat to Labour in the north than they are to the Conservatives the south," says Brendan Evans, professor of Politics at the University of Huddersfield. "The evidence suggests that, north and south, they take more votes from the Conservative Party. It’s true that they will eat into the Labour vote in the north because it is in many ways a protest vote, a vote of rejecting the political establishment and the way the current political agenda is going.... But I think that they are a bigger threat to Conservatives nationwide in that while UKIP probably won’t win parliamentary seats in the next general election they will deprive votes from the Conservatives and hand, in effect, seats over to Labour.”
It’s a nightmare scenario for senior Conservative Party strategists seeking centrist voters, and one which might draw sympathy from Republication counterparts who have long looked over their shoulders at the Tea Party.
For their part, UKIP activists don’t seem to be entirely unhappy with the US parallels.
“We come from slightly different cultures but we do understand particularly Ron Paul, who Nigel met recently and they got on famously together,” says Mr. Finch, the UKIP county councilor in Hampshire. “We do believe as the Tea Party believes that people should be left, as far as is practicable, left to make the best of their own lives.”
Nor, like many Tea Partiers, does he believe that the movement is a temporary phenomenon.
“We are here to stay. The time for the Conservatives to have changed direction was 20 years ago when UKIP was formed. We see ourselves as a radical party. The Conservative Party is and have been for many years a part of the state, the EU, and big business, which are all linked together.”