The idea of protest voting in next May's General Election is becoming a very real concern for the main Westminster parties. The Conservatives are threatened on the right by UKIP, Labour are challenged on the left by the SNP and Greens, and the Liberal Democrats are losing votes to, well, basically any other party. As the Big Three begin to clamour over one another to offer the floating voter the best deal in the coming months, these protest parties will be trying equally hard to garner enough media attention to keep their wave going until May.
For some of them, this will be more of an ordeal than others. The Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens will barely receive any coverage in traditional media, bar the occasional mention that editors can point towards and say: "Look, we are inclusive." Other smaller parties will face total exclusion. The SNP will continue to argue it does not get enough attention in the national media, as it did regarding its exclusion from the planned BBC and ITV televised debates. And yet UKIP, one of the rising stars ahead of next year's election, seem to be having no trouble at all in this regard.
Many are quick to criticise the media for giving UKIP a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Indeed, it is true that UKIP have only gained ground in the past year or so, earning its first MP last month and perhaps its second in just over a week's time. However, other parties can only dream of receiving as much coverage as UKIP have, despite Caroline Lucas' victory in 2010 and the two Scottish Green MSPs at Holyrood. So why do UKIP get so much coverage in the press?
No, it's not a right-wing media agenda as many on the left will claim. Whilst much of the press does back right-wing parties (read: the Conservatives), you'd be hard pressed to find one that actually backs UKIP. Even the Daily Mail, long known for its sensationalist right-wing ideology, demonise Nigel Farage and his cronies. Any coverage in traditional media is invariably negative.
UKIP are paraded out in a circus intended to demonstrate its extremity. The media give it attention precisely because the philosophy it espouses is ridiculous. "You think the Tories are bad? Check out these idiots." In fact, coverage surrounding UKIP is much the same as documentaries that focus on sufferers of obscure diseases. We watch them because they are intriguing and unfamiliar (and perhaps a little gruesome). The media have simply applied this logic to Nigel Farage.
Yet UKIP are a great example of the old adage "no publicity is bad publicity". The same could be said of the vast majority of protest parties; any coverage increases awareness of the respective party, supplying an additional option for those voters looking for an alternative to the Big Three with which they feel disillusioned.
Many in the media have since come to realise that giving UKIP so much publicity has actually caused the reverse effect to what original reports had intended. Instead of highlighting their extremity, it has created a serious threat out of the party, the culmination of which had led to Nigel Farage being invited to participate in the televised leader debates. Many newspapers and columnists are now attempting to backtrack through the publication of various comment pieces explicitly stating the negative side of UKIP policies, rather than just alluding to them in news articles.
However, this mightn't be enough to combat the damage already done. Whilst UKIP will not get an outright majority in the next election, the fact that they are being taken as a serious threat, particularly by the Tories, is already being demonstrated. Discussion surrounding immigration and the EU have entirely been brought about due to UKIP. If Farage and his team manage to ride the wave until May, there might even be a chance of a coalition if the main parties do not get enough votes to form a majority.
Personally, I believe the best way to combat UKIP as a protest vote would be to highlight the alternative protest options. In a recent letter to Rona Fairweather, Chair of the BBC Trust, the Greens (both English & Welsh and Scottish factions), the SNP and Plaid Cymru urged for their inclusion in the TV debates. This would allow these parties to put forward their argument and provide an opportunity for the electorate to sample other positions across the spectrum (even if, in the case with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, debates including Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood are only aired in their respective nations). If a person is absolutely determined not to vote for one of the Big Three come May 2015, they can protest vote in a meaningful way - rather than simply choosing the only option that appears available to them.