Rechtsextreme Demonstranten bei einem Neonazi-Aufmarsch in Berlin am 1. Mai 2010.

12.11.2014 | Von:
Vidhya Ramalingam

Behind UKIP’s Support: A fertile ground for the radical right in Britain

In May 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won the European elections in Great Britain. How can this election success be explained and who are the supporters of UKIP?

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In May 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic and populist party, made history when it became the first party in over a century other than Labour or Conservatives to come first in a UK election. The party gained 24 of the UK’s 73 seats in European Parliament. UKIP was founded in the 1993 by members of the Anti-Federalist League. Throughout most of its history, UKIP only became important once every five years during the European Parliament elections, when their anti-EU campaign became relevant to voters. However, the party has slowly and steadily gained momentum from 1997 onwards, and has managed in the past several years to successfully transition from a single-issue pressure group to a broad radical right populist party and legitimate contender in British elections. This was marked by a series of record results in parliamentary by-elections, a wave of victories in the 2013 local elections, and ultimately in the 2014 European elections. With charismatic leader Nigel Farage leading the way on themes of Euroscepticism, populism, and opposition to immigration, the party has suddenly found itself at the centre of political debate.

The UK has historically been fertile ground for movements thriving on popular xenophobia, Euroscepticism, and discontent with mainstream political institutions. Since the 1960s, large majorities of the British population have been opposed to immigration, and research from the Migration Observatory has noted that over the past 15 years immigration has become one of the most salient issues in Britain.[1] The British population has also always been strongly Eurosceptic. This is fuelled by a highly Eurosceptic media in Britain, with many major papers consistently taking an anti-EU perspective. Thus, the demand for these parties has always been there. Though UKIP is not an extremist party, it shares not only the policy proposals but the same voter profiles as Britain’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant far-right parties.

However, before UKIP, Britain’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigration far right had been characterised by failure and marginality. It had been less well organised and less successful electorally than similar organisations across Europe. There is broad consensus among researchers that the failures of the far right owe much to the agency of parties and movements themselves (i.e. due to failures of leadership, strategy, ability to maintain unity, and ability to shed extremist pasts). Despite the local successes of the British National Party (BNP) over the years in places like Burnley, Dudley, and the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, as well as the two European Parliament seats they acquired in 2009, the party has today collapsed and will likely bear little weight on British politics in the coming years.

In the wake of the BNP’s failure to effectively harness the fertile environment for far right politics, a new form of radical right politics emerged and has posed one of the most successful challenges to the established political parties in modern British history. Though UKIP is not a far-right extremist party, there are considerable overlaps in its policy proposals: calls to end "uncontrolled immigration", the removal of benefits for immigrants, and even calls from some party representatives to deport all immigrants.[2] However, UKIP differs from Britain’s extreme right in its ease with the global free market and libertarian outlook. They present themselves as non-racist, but "civic nationalists."[3] Its roots are in British Euroscepticism, rather than any anti-democratic or extreme right tradition. Despite these differences, there is evidence of strong overlaps in the support base; UKIP supporters and leaders have attitudes that have typically been associated with the BNP.[4]

Defining features of UKIP supporters

According to a study by British researchers[5], there are two types of UKIP supporters, "strategic" voters and "core" voters. "Strategic" voters are those who turn to UKIP only during European Elections, largely disaffected Conservatives supporting the party on its anti-Europe platform. "Core" voters support UKIP across different elections, and are more working class and discontented. These voters more closely resemble supporters of the BNP and other European radical right parties. Over the last several years, there has been increasing research done to uncover key characteristics of UKIP’s supporters. The evidence suggests the following characteristics:
  • UKIP has struggled to galvanise support of young people and women. Similar to the BNP, UKIP supporters are male dominated (57 percent male) and ageing groups, often attracting middle-aged or elderly men. 57 percent of UKIP voters are over the age of 54, while just over 10 percent are under the age of 35.[6]
  • It has never been the poorest in society that support parties like UKIP; voters tend to be spread evenly across skilled workers, unskilled workers, and those dependent on state benefits. Many supporters are in full-time employment.[7] However, UKIP does remain more working class than any of the main parties. 42 percent of UKIP voters work in blue-collar jobs or do not work at all. 30 percent hold professional middle-class jobs. This is similar to the support base for the BNP, which is 55 percent blue-collar jobs, 22 percent middle-class.[8]
  • UKIP voters are less educated than voters of other parties. 55 percent of UKIP voters left school before the age of 17, with only 24 percent having attended university. Again, this is very similar to the profile of BNP supporters, with 62 percent having left school before the age of 17, and less than 20 percent having attended university.[10]
  • UKIP voters are diverse in their historical party loyalties, ranging from disaffected and Eurosceptic middle-class Conservatives who supported Thatcher and are today disappointed by the compromises made by the coalition government, to working-class voters, many of whom were once Labour supporters.[11]
  • There is a varying intensity of attitudes from conservative, to radical to the extreme within UKIP. Though UKIP voters are all driven by a similar set of concerns, some voters and indeed some UKIP politicians, are more hostile towards immigrants, or have made public claims that certain racial groups are superior to others. A YouGov poll in September 2013 noted that 60 percent of UKIP voters are uncomfortable with the idea of an ethnic minority Prime Minister.[12] As with most radical right forces, there are connections between the radical and extreme, both personal and institutional, as well as overlaps in support base. The English Defence League has professed support for UKIP, despite the fact that UKIP denies any relationship and denounces this affiliation.
UKIP support is thus concentrated amongst those that may be considered to have been "left behind" by economic and social changes. In this sense support for UKIP is not necessarily a protest vote due to political disillusionment, but indicates a very real and new group of electorate that has grown in the past several decades due to divides in the social and economic experiences of the British public. They lack the qualifications for social mobility in a time when public spending and incomes are falling, and inequality is rising.

Drivers of UKIP support: Beyond Euroscepticism

Eurosceptic attitudes are widespread in Britain, and according to Eurobarometer surveys, consistently more so than nearly every other EU member state. Britain has the least trust in the EU among all member states in the last 16 out of 20 Eurobarometer polls.[13] Researchers and academics have put forth various reasons for this high level of anti-EU sentiment, ranging from Britain’s geography as an island to economic conditions. UKIP wins support from less than one in twenty voters, but among strong Eurosceptics they win one in five.[14] However, the issue of European membership sits quite low on the list of most salient issues for British voters – the most salient issues nearly consistently include the economic situation, immigration, unemployment and welfare.

Though for the average UKIP voter (and, according to Ford and Goodwin, particularly for ‘strategic’ voters), Euroscepticism is certainly the most powerful motive, a Eurosceptic agenda is not their only motive for voting. This is closely followed by political dissatisfaction, opposition to migration, and economic pessimism. Europe has come to function as a symbol of numerous other perceived problems in British society, as well as perceived threats to the nation. This includes the perceived threat of immigration, or loss of cultural identity. Europe is seen to be the source of Britain’s immigration problems, and there are strong perceptions that Britain is at the whim of Eurocrats, who want to rid of national identities and flatten and conform Europe.

Opposition to immigration: jobs and cultural conflict

A core motive for UKIP support is opposition to migration, often founded on perceived prioritisation of immigrant communities in public policy, perceived negative impact of immigration on economic and welfare structures in Britain, and growing perceptions of cultural conflict. Diversity and migration are seen to threaten native groups. Though this anxiety is often enhanced by media and hear-say about migrant abuse of the system and other scandals, in some cases it can be motivated by a personal experience (e.g. having struggled to find a job and seen new arrivals to Britain succeed in finding work). Islamophobia in particular has become one of the strongest drivers of anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in a post 9/11 climate. Large majorities of UKIP (87%) supporters are convinced that Islam poses a serious danger to the West (again, this is very similar to BNP attitudes, where 85% were convinced of this). Similarly, 64% of UKIP supporters would feel "bothered a lot" by the presence of an Islamic institution in their community, which is over twice the national average (31%).[15] However, it is important to note that these attitudes are not confined to UKIP. In a recent survey, 37% of voters would be more likely to support a party that promised to reduce the numbers of Muslims in the country.[16] Concerns about immigration are strongly correlated with Euroscepticism, as European migration contributes to the feeling of "symbolic threat" from the EU. Brussels has been painted, both by the media and by politicians, as a force which prevents national politicians from restricting migrants’ arrivals.

Unresponsive and out-of touch elites

Britain has, like many European countries, seen a growing sense of resentment of political and social elites. As UKIP supporters are predominantly from the aforementioned new voting group of those ‘left behind’ by economic changes, it is thus unsurprising that surveys and claims by UKIP supporters demonstrate that they also feel ‘left behind’ by a political system run by an elite that is predominantly Oxford and Cambridge educated and entirely out of touch with working-class Britain.[17] UKIP supporters are more distrustful than average of mainstream politicians and of public institutions. Nigel Farage once stated in an interview, "This is all Fleet Street, this is their obsession and they can't get out of it. But the numbers are perfectly clear: there is now a huge class dimension to the UKIP vote."[18] Again, these sentiments are not confined to UKIP; a recent YouGov survey shows that 66% of the public would be more likely to support a political party that "pledged to stand up to political and business elites".[19] UKIP has promoted a populist narrative which paints a clear picture of a divide between the ordinary people and the political class, who are “corrupt, complacent and out of touch.”

What does the future hold?

UKIP has risen through a combination of successful issue framing: an anti-immigration platform that is explicitly not racist,[20] and harvesting a prime time for Euroscepticism and anti-establishment sentiment. Contrary to other radical right (and extreme right) forces that have made prior attempts in UK politics, UKIP has public legitimacy, both from its legitimate democratic origins and through strong political and media allies (including several defections from the Conservatives). UKIP also benefits from charismatic leadership from Nigel Farage, who has an uncanny ability to connect to those voters who feel ‘left behind’ by economic and social changes in Britain. At a time when the electorate can find little to relate to in political elites like David Cameron (and in a decade when Britain has seen many political scandals and corruption), Nigel Farage is often pictured in the media with a beer in hand, appealing to the "ordinary" citizen and willing to say what the political elite are unwilling to say.

Despite that UKIP has gone from strength to strength, it is important to remember that UKIP only connects with one in five voters who are strongly Eurosceptic, and only half of the British electorate who explicitly disapprove of the Britain’s EU membership.[21] UKIP also continues to struggle in its appeal with young people, women and ethnic minorities. There is a generational divide in cultural anxiety and anti-immigration attitudes in Britain. Recent surveys confirm that those over age of 60 are more likely to endorse ideas that we should reduce Muslims in country, or that Islam poses a danger to Western civilisation, while 18 – 24 year olds are far more at ease with role of migrants and minorities in Britain.[22] Young people in Britain are less concerned about immigration and Europe, and are far more confident about the future of Britain and British identity moving forward.

A perhaps unique contradiction in UKIP’s success, different from the rise of other Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties in Europe, is that UKIP’s growth has taken place under one of the most Eurosceptic and immigration-focused governments in recent British history. It cannot be argued that the mainstream political parties have not addressed immigration concerns or refuse to acknowledge public grievances about the European Union. UKIP’s success will not necessarily shift the political debate in Britain, as Euroscepticism and anti-immigration politics have already been at the forefront.

However, what UKIP’s success has done is twofold: On the one hand, it has pushed the possibility of exiting the EU onto the political agenda in a very real way. Following the May 2014 European elections, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed a new Eurosceptic Cabinet of ministers in July 2014, and has promised to try to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties before holding a referendum on EU membership in 2017.

On the other hand UKIP’s success has signalled the arrival of a new group of the electorate that has been not only ‘left behind’ by social and economic changes but by political elite that do not relate to them and is not looking after their interests. How the other major parties shift their modus operandi to deal with the importance of this portion of the electorate will determine not only the future of those parties, but of UKIP itself.

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Blinder, Scott (2012). UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern. The Migration Observatory at University of Oxford. 23 February 2012 [Available online:]
Goodwin, Matthew and Jocelyn Evans (2012). From voting to violence? Far right extremism in Britain. Hope not Hate and YouGov. London, UK. For more information on UKIP party representatives calling to deport all immigrants, see this news story in the Guardian from 08 December 2013: See also original video here:
Empowering the People: UKIP Manifesto. April 2010. Pg. 13. [Available online:].
Ford, Robert, Goodwin, Matthew and David Cutts. Strategic Eurosceptics and Polite Xenophobes. [Available online:].
Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, London, UK.
Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2010). Angry White Men: Individual and Contextual Predictors of Support for the British National Party, Political Studies. 58(1): 1.–25. February 2010.
Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, London, UK.
Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, London, UK.
Goodwin, Matthew and Jocelyn Evans (2012). From voting to violence? Far right extremism in Britain. Hope not Hate and YouGov. London, UK.
Extremis Project (2012). Europe at the extremes? Public concerns and the generational divide. Extremis Project. [Available online:]
Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, London, UK.
The Guardian, 5 March 2014. [Available online:]
Extremis Project (2012). Europe at the extremes? Public concerns and the generational divide. Extremis Project. [Available online:]
UKIP has distinguished their anti-immigration policy from anti-immigration predecessors like the BNP by building an immigration policy platform based not on race or ethnicity, or even protection of British values, but on the socio-economic contributions of migrants. The keystones of their immigration policy is to regain control of the borders by leaving the EU, remove welfare benefits for new migrants, and financial conditions for immigrants and tourists to enter the UK. More information available here: The party explicitly denies racism, as evidenced by public statements by Nigel Farage. See media example here:
Survey results revealed different subsets of the population that are "strongly Eurosceptic" and those that fundamentally "disapprove of Britain’s EU membership." More information available from: Ford, Robert and Matthew Goodwin (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Routledge, London, UK.
Extremis Project (2012). Europe at the extremes? Public concerns and the generational divide. Extremis Project. [Available online:]
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Parlamentsaktivitäten der Rechtsaußenparteien im Europäischen Parlament 2009-2014

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