English Nationalism and Electoral Reform could propel UKIP into Real Power

Lots has been written of the last few years about the possibility of UKIP’s rise resurrecting debates over electoral reform most thought died after the abysmal defeat of reformers in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum. There are even suggestions that they could be the catalyst for a reform to our current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system where whichever candidate gets the most votes becomes the MP, to a form of Proportional Representation (PR) where percentage of votes is reflected in the percentage of seats in the House of Commons a party gets.

Despite this discussion, less consideration is given to how UKIP could achieve their goal of some form of PR being used for Westminster elections. Less still to what might be the main obstacle in their path. I argue that this will be the Conservative Party push for ‘English votes for English laws’ if UKIP allow petty English nationalism to override their genuine appeal to underrepresented English voters.

If UKIP is to wield any form of long term influence or power over the UK political scene, it can only do so with some form of PR as the Westminster electoral system. No doubt UKIP can have, and is having, a dramatic short term impact. Nigel Farage’s face is ubiquitous on news programs – it surprised me that some commentators viewed him as largely absent during his dry January (he was never off my TV screen). In any case, he will be well and truly back as we drive towards the General Election.

Of course the biggest (and it is truly enormous) impact they could have in the short term would be a ‘BrExit’ from the EU following an in/out referendum. However, even if that succeeds, but especially if it doesn’t, in the long term UKIP’s real impact beyond political rhetoric is limited. Immigration remains extremely high in the view of many UK citizens. Other right-wing populist policies such a reversing gay marriage are simply not achievable given the consensus among the leadership of the established Westminster parties. There is a limit to how much impact UKIP can have merely as right-wing pressure on the Conservative Party, no matter how much the media amplifies their message.

To go beyond being a pressure group, to wield real political power, UKIP will need to increase its presence in our sovereign Parliament. Geographically, UKIP suffers like any evenly distributed small party under FPTP. Unlike the SNP their vote is not concentrated so they cannot build up enough support in many individual constituencies to win the seats. There are other problems as well. Unlike the Lib Dems, they do not have a strong base in local government. Even the Greens have pockets with strong activism bases. It is, therefore, certain that UKIP will receive proportionally far fewer seats than their share of the vote would justify.

Under a PR system with, say 10% or 15% of MPs, UKIP would wield real power. Indeed, under PR tactical considerations tend to be less influential on how people vote, so their share of the vote (and hence share of the seats) might even go up. This is why UKIP’s path to political power is bounded by electoral reform. But it is because UKIP’s path to power involves electoral reform that it will face major obstacles. There are many obstacles to electoral reform, and many of these acknowledged and well known. In my opinion, it is more interesting to think about how UKIP might pursue an electoral reform agenda, and what in particular would stand in their way, rather than go over again the many general obstacles to electoral reform.

Electoral reform is a dry issue, even political junkies must admit this. It is certainly not what you associate with UKIP’s more visceral appeal to those ‘left behind by globalization’, who feel unrepresented in British politics at present. It certainly doesn’t fit nicely into a ‘pub politics’ image. Nonetheless, if UKIP is to mobilise voters on the issue, then their best approach is to appeal to ‘little-Englander’ nationalism.

After the election, barring a huge loss of nerve from Scottish voters, the SNP look set for massive gains – perhaps as many as 35 seats. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said that SNP MPs will vote on issues perceived as English matters if she thinks they will affect Scotland. Her reasoning is that even if, say, the NHS has been devolved to The Scottish Parliament, votes at Westminster still affect how she runs the Scottish NHS. Further, should Labour be the largest party, the SNP will no doubt play a supporting role at the national level and that may mean even more Scottish votes on English matters. In either case, this will cause great resentment amongst many English. It is this resentment that UKIP must exploit to make the case for PR. The challenge will come from the Conservative Party, which for reasons of genuine small ‘c’ conservatism and for political reasons opposes PR. The Conservatives will use the opportunity presented by SNP MPs voting on English matters to push English Votes for English Laws. UKIP, though it supports English Votes for English Laws, must make the case for PR instead or as well.

One might interject: ‘if UKIP supports English Votes why not just go along with it?’ The answer is simply that English Votes does nothing to solve UKIP’s FPTP problem. English Votes is not an English Parliament, it simply means that only MPs elected by English constituencies will be able to vote on matters that only affect England. The lack of new layers of politicians is a primary reason UKIP support English Votes. But that also means that English MP’s remain elected under a FPTP system. UKIP would still only have a handful of English MPs voting on English matters.

So, UKIP must be steadfast in arguing for PR as well as English Votes as a solution to SNP MPs voting on English matters. They must also be careful in how they marshal the resentment from English voters which will be stirred up up by the sight of Alex Salmond voting on matters south of the border. It will be tempting to give in to what I will call ‘petty little-Englander nationalism’. This frames the issue as one of English against Scots. The focus will be on the unfairness of Scots voting on English matters, oppressing the English with higher income taxes to pay for Scottish public services. This would point directly to English Votes as the solution.

The alternative message from UKIP must contrast UKIP with the SNP. UKIP must acknowledge that what UKIP and SNP voters have in common is that they are fed up with the established London parties. But, they must also contrast the influence the SNP can have that UKIP cannot. That SNP voters who feel abandoned by Westminster are heard and get a response, whilst UKIP voters in long forgotten parts of England remain excluded. Instead of motivating an English nationalism that is petty and straightforwardly anti-Scottish, they must motivate an English nationalism that says ‘this is my country too’. PR must become a way for all English voices to be heard in the corridors of power by making every English vote count. FPTP must be seen as a way to exclude voices that contradict those of the London-based, metropolitan elite.

If UKIP are able to turn PR into a cause of English nationalism then they may well be able to motivate enough of their voters in a PR referendum. These new converts from the UKIP voting base will join sizeable chunks of the (former) Lib Dem base, Green voters, and many Labour and Conservative voters, and together this might be enough to win a PR referendum. But, before that, PR must get into the political and media agenda. If there is one thing UKIP can do it is set the media agenda, and they must do it again. Trumpeting PR as the solution to millions of forgotten English voters is quite possibly one way they can do this. But it must be PR, and not English resentment of Scotland that makes the headlines.