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What the Rise of Ukip Means for the Political Establishment

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The recent European elections were certainly a wake-up call for the major political parties and the Westminster political class in the UK, but it takes a bit of interpretation to be clear exactly what the message the electorate delivered was.

Certainly, a fair bit of it was to do with the European Union, reflecting the name of the party which did best. A large majority of the electorate would like to have a say on our continuing membership, whether or not they approve of it, and they feel disenfranchised by the failure of the major party leaders to hold promised referendums in the past and distrustful of one being delivered in the future.

Immigration was certainly a major issue, with concerns about competition for jobs, changing culture and overcrowding being understandable worries. The electorate know that very little can be done about migration within the EU and the fact that this is the case simply adds to frustrations with the political establishment which allowed this situation to arise in the first place.

The deep divide between the relatively high income and privileged London based political elite and most ordinary people generated more resentment, compounded by the enormous difference there now is between living standards in the South East and much of the rest of the country. Add to this the decline in industry and the growth in services, from which many UKIP voters have failed to benefit, and it is easy to see why Ukip did poorly in London but much better in the regions.

But perhaps the biggest single reason for the rise of Ukip stems from the poor performance of the economy in recent years and the stagnation - or fall - in living standards which has been the inevitable consequence. It is no coincidence that right across the EU, support for the traditional parties of the moderate left and right has withered because they have formed the governments which have presided over year after year of austerity and high unemployment.

The UK's performance broadly reflects the economic outcomes which have materialised in most of the rest of Europe. The UK's GDP peaked during the first quarter of 2008 and has still not recovered this level six years later, even though in the meantime the population has grown by about 4%. Unemployment rose sharply after the crash and has recently fallen but much of this drop masks unwanted part time work, many people becoming self-employed and thus dropping out of the unemployment figures even if their earnings are very low, or others giving up hope and stopping even looking for a job.

No wonder many people look back to periods in our history when living standards generally may have been a bit lower, but most people had a job in which they could take reasonable pride, many fewer people were out of work, there was a slower pace of change in the social and cultural environment and there was more hope for the future. Tapping into the discontents which resented changes in the environment in which many people live during recent decades explains perhaps more clearly than anything else the appeal which non-traditional parties such as Ukip have clearly exhibited.

Where then does the future lie? The problem which the UK - and much of the rest of Europe - may be facing is that the traditional major political parties may have no solutions which will make the economies for which they are responsible to perform better, but protest parties such as Ukip may be in no stronger a position to do this than the political establishment. It is one thing to lambaste current and past governments for failing to deliver successful policies but quite another for new parties to articulate clearly and convincingly what ought to be done instead.

Somehow or other, however, more successful economic policies than those we have seen recently in both the UK and the wider EU are going to have to be found and implemented or the major protest votes which we have seen over the last few days will probably be only the precursor to a much more serious process of political fragmentation materialising over the coming years.

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