Local election results on May 3rd redefined the place of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) on Britain’s political spectrum, as the anti-EU, anti-immigration party took a quarter of all votes cast. This leaves analysts and other interested parties scraping to get to the bottom of these sizeable gains at the polls for what was previously a notably “fringe” party. Predicting the possible repercussions of these results for British politics and placing UKIP’s surge in the context of a wider European trend in this right-wing direction remains a difficult proposition. 

With the votes counted and verified, party leader Nigel Farage placed himself before television cameras and boasted that UKIP would cause “a political earthquake” at next year’s European elections. His declaration had something of the populist histrionics about it that has symbolized theparty’s rise to prominence. But Farage’s bravado this time seemed to represent more than empty political rhetoric; his party has caused tremors that have shaken the UK’s entire political establishment.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to the results has been telling. Immigration, for example, which according to a post-election YouGov poll was the biggest factor behind increased UKIPsupport, was on Wednesday suddenly back on the government’s agenda, specifically in the shape of a bill that would limit EU migrants’ entry into the country. So too was the question of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership – UKIP’s flagship concern – on Cameron’s mind.

Opposition leader Ed Milliband, seizing on the Conservative Party leader’s seemingly knee-jerk reaction, delighted in the week’s proceedings: “Insulting them [UKIP], ignoring them, imitating them, will not work,” he suggested, making reference to Cameron’s once outright dismissal of the party. Cameron famously described UKIP as “clowns, fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” a comment which now has almost bumper-sticker familiarity.

It is the Conservative Party, popularly referred to as the Tory Party, and in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who is inevitably fearful of UKIP’s success – it is UKIP, after all, who is most likely to mop up disgruntled Tory voters and defectors. But the results of the election perhaps indicate that the trend to the right, towards anti-immigration and Euro-scepticism, is not as straightforward as it might seem. UKIP’s rise to prominence appears emblematic of a continental-wide phenomenon, a political movement which might be described as anti-politics.

What the results suggest

There is something almost inexplicable about the frenzy often whipped up by local elections. They decide only the provisions for local democratic government, and the elections take place mid-term when a ruling party’s approval rating is often at its lowest ebb. Still, local elections are, in the words of political expert Lewis Baston, “often overshadowed by the way the media, politicians, analysts – and of course voters – see them as a way of taking the temperature of the national political scene.”

The usual mid-term swing did indeed occur, with the opposition Labour Party gaining control of two councils and 291 councillors, and the Conservatives losing overall control of ten councils and 335 councillors. Most experts agree however that UKIP’s marked gains should have all main parties worried. A Guardian editorial last Saturday said that UKIP had managed to expose a “profound democratic disconnection” between voters and the mainstream parties.

The problem for the political establishment is that UKIP support tends to come not only from former Tory voters, but from across the board. With all three of the UK’s parties much more closely aligned than they once were, UKIP offers a genuine alternative – and the only alternative at present with a recognizable and personable leader at the helm. In that sense, policy indeed should not be seen as UKIP’s driving force.

But the YouGov poll mentioned above is telling. Of the voters who were asked what would push them towards UKIP, around three quarters cite the party’s stance on immigration, nearly two-thirds side with the party’s policy on Britain rescinding its EU membership, while just under half spoke of disillusionment with the main parties. All in all, supporters appear to engage with the traditionalism inherent in the party’s rhetoric – shore up the borders, bring power back from Brussels to Westminster, and make sure it’s handled by straight-talking politicians when it gets here.

Demographically, UKIP supporters are seemingly easy to spot: male, over-50 and working class. The allegiances unifying this demographic are simple to understand. On the one hand, their jobs are under pressure from liberal EU work entitlements, and because of their age they still remember the days of low migration and so-called “traditional British values.”

The results at the polls ostensibly reveal less about the left-right political spectrum or the long-term prospects for UKIP than they do about a surge in support more generally for a sort of restorative nationalism. And UKIP are not the first European party to have capitalized on this development.

A European trend

This trend is not exclusive to Britain: it is decidedly a Europe-wide phenomenon. Whatever its varying root causes might be across the continent, political populism and nationalism has been this movement’s primary vehicle.

Writing for the Financial Times, Philip Stevens illuminates how the picture looks on the continent: “In Greece and Hungary, there is a thin line between right wing populism and fascism. France’s anti-Islamic National Front is thriving. Finland has its True Finns. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, tilts towards the xenophobic extremism of that country’s Jobbik party with an agenda uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1930s.”

“The wind is behind populists dressed up as patriots,” Stevens notes.

Though defined by local nationalism, there does seem to be a shared set of European concerns underlying these various populist movements. Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick, suggests that “tough economic times and recessions help the far and populist right. The left doesn’t do so well; the left seems to do better in more prosperous times.”

He also puts it that questions about the EU play a significant role in these anti-politics, particularly in the UK, where an apparently Euro-sceptic section of the British press often “given a distorted picture of the European Union.” The very nature of the European project plays into this – the physical distance between many of the people it seeks to represent is certainly significant. Having been designed on purely political and economic terms, it is not entirely surprising that the staunchly anti-EU UKIP supporters feel no cultural affinity with Europe.

In turn, then, Nigel Farage’s oft-spoken line about Britain being run by “bureaucrats in Brussels” has more to it than just an alliterative catchiness: it brings to the fore a suitable scapegoat for voters to lash out at.

Grant suggests that voters are drawn towards the right wing for various reasons. “Partly it is because right wing parties have a fairly coherent narrative of a kind which, during economic recession, involves laying the blame on, say, bankers, globalization and conspiracy between politicians,” he notes.

The right way to go?

Dora Kostakopoulou, author of Citizenship, Identity and Immigration in the EU, cites the relationship between Europe’s continent-wide austerity projects and “the rising of intolerance towards Europe’s ethnic residents and citizens, of neo-nationalism, populism and of Euro-scepticism.” She notes that this brand of politics is not new.

“Conservative forces have always exploited economic circumstances in order to capture the political imagination and to provide simplistic assessments which will attract votes,” she comments. “UKIP’s anti-Europeanist rhetoric deflects attention from the Coalition Government’s economic policies and makes blame shifting easy as well as effective.”

UKIP are simply the British manifestation of this regional trend. While some such programmes such as the Five Star Movement in Italy have perhaps succeeded only in bringing the country’s political system to its knees, UKIP and other parties such as the Danish Peoples Party seem to have managed to strike the right balance between anti-politics and right-wing politics. The latter recently outpolled Denmark’s ruling party for the first time and, with a number of party members who have experience of being in government as part of the last center-right coalition, they might provide something of a blueprint for Farage’s UKIP moving forward.

It remains difficult to put a finger on any single simple, concrete reason behind this recent right-wing upsurge. There seem to be a host of complicated, inter-connected reasons. In the days following the UK elections the press have given endless column inches to this debate and compelling theories have abounded. Meanwhile, mainstream politicians remain relatively powerless – perhaps even in their own minds – to bend this new anti-political rhetoric to their own designs.

Indeed, Ed Milliband’s derisive jibe at David Cameron was delivered with a smile behind which sits a warning to all parties: imitating UKIP will not work. Nor, it seems, will rushing to the right, like the Prime Minister has hinted at doing.

Usual right-left political distinctions seem to be of little relevance to this new discussion, for the current trend appears to speak more of a national-international divide. On this issue a new stand is being taken, by the likes of Farage in the case of the UK, whereby a sort of politicized xenophobia born out of fear of the world beyond national boundaries, is bearing political success.

Stevens’s thoughts are much the same: “The culprit, if you can call it that, is globalization. The political mega-trend of recent decades has been the diffusion of power – from states to other actors and from old elites to citizens. This is fertile ground for the politics of grievance. It explains the paradox of the rise of nationalism in a world where nations are weaker.”

Certainly, if it weren’t for the almost playful populism of figures like Farage or Beppe Grillo – the Italian comedian who leads the Five Star Movement – people may be more worried that a trend towards the far right harboured a more serious threat. But while Farages’s political career is likely to be more lengthy than Grillo’s, both have shown that it is their unorthodoxy vis-à-vis the political establishment that is their most significant weapon. As Napolean is quoted as saying: “In politics, an absurdity is not a handicap.”

Unfortunately for the likes of David Cameron, ruling politics cannot be based on anti-politics – that might just be too absurd.