Ukip’s supporters show the classic signs of populism in their backing of the party, and populism usually surges before slumping. Predicting when the former will stop and the latter start is not easy, but the process is inevitable.
The gap between the democratic ideal in the heads of their and the messy reality of modern democratic politics cannot but trip up Ukip.
First, it is helpful to understand the how populist Ukip’s supporters are.
Ukippers think politicians protect the interests of the powerful and are out for themselves. Their support is based on the belief Ukip will be different.
So if they then see their political heroes backing big business, appearing as craven as others, or failing to solve complex problems, disillusionment will drive the party’s support down just as it drove it up.
In Australia, Pauline Hanson led her populist One Nation party to remarkable success in state level elections in Queensland and secured over 9 per cent of the vote in the 1998 federal elections. But Hanson’s demise was swift – in the 2010 federal election One Nation polled less than 1 per cent.
In Australia the populist One Nation party won 9 per cent in 1998 – and 1 per cent in 2010.
The established mainstream parties are not easy to shift, not least in part because they can move to occupy the policy ground (on, say, immigration) claimed by populist challengers.
Some claim that Ukip are fast becoming the Teflon party of British politics: immune from media exposure of scandals, because its base reflects a cultural rejection of liberal Britain. But distrust of one group of political actors can quickly spread to others. One-time beneficiaries can quickly become a target, as Nick Clegg discovered in 2010 (see how the Lib Dems’ support rose and fell).
Ukip must live and die by the rules of populism. Those rules predict a surge followed by a slump as scandals, exposure of political self-interest and failures of delivery take their toll.
Will Jennings is a Professor of Political Science, and Gerry Stoker Professor of Governance, at the University of Southampton.