Nigel Farage’s two debating victories over Nick Clegg have put his party on course to win next month’s elections to the European Parliament – but not to wield influence at Westminster or secure British withdrawal from the European Union
The latest YouGov/Sunday Times voting figures for the European Parliament are certainly startling. Among all voters, UKIP has climbed from 23%, and third place, a week ago, to 28%, and a strong second place, this weekend. When we count only those who say they are certain to vote, UKIP gains another six point to 34%, seven points ahead of Labour and fully 14 points ahead of the Conservatives. The Tories are heading for third place for the first time in a national election in their history.
UKIP, then, has attracted not only more converts but also fired their enthusiasm. When we asked about turnout in next month’s euro-election, the “certain to vote” figures for Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats supporters were all between 45 and 48%. UKIP’s figure was much higher: 63%.
That turnout gap may prove to be a short-lived reaction to the publicity surrounding last week’s debate and Farage’s emphatic victory. Post-debate polls of viewers by both YouGov (for The Sun) and ICM (for The Guardian), showed UKIP’s leader outscoring his Lib Dem counterpart by more than two-to-one.
Our latest Sunday Times survey confirms Farage’s personal popularity. Of the four party leaders, he is the only one with a positive rating, with a net score of plus 25 among the general public (53% say he is doing well, minus 28% saying badly). In contrast, David Cameron (minus 10), Ed Miliband (minus 34) and Nick Clegg (minus 51) trail in his wake.
Our poll also suggests that the debates have done nothing to save the Lib Dems from a drubbing next month. Their current support in the European elections is just 9%, down from 14% in the 2009 elections. Five years ago they won 11 seats. Their support is now down to the same level as the Greens in 2009, for whom 9% yielded just two seats. The system for electing Euro MPs is broadly proportional – for each party that passes a hurdle that varies from around 7% to 11% per region. The Lib Dems are perilously close to falling just short of that hurdle throughout Britain and, as a result, losing all, or almost all, of their seats.
If UKIP does come first next month, it will doubtless, and rightly, be regarded as a political earthquake. Its long term significance is another matter, In 2009, UKIP came second, with 17% support – and a year later slumped to 3% in the general election.
Our latest polls finds clear signs that, once again, many voters regard the European elections as a chance for just a one-night stand with UKIP, rather than the start of a long-term partnership. When the same people are asked about a general election, just 12% say they would vote UKIP. This is in line with the party’s recent average. They face the real prospect that they could top the poll next month – and win not a single parliamentary seat next year.
Likewise with the issue that brought UKIP into being: British membership of the EU. We would currently vote by 42-37% to stay in. Once again, the two TV debates have had little or no effect. YouGov polls before the first debate, between the two debates and now, after the second debate, have all shown a pro-EU majority of 4-6 points.
(Our post-debate poll found some movement to an anti-EU stance among viewers – but too few people watched the the detailed exchanges between Clegg and Farage to make any material difference to the figures among the general public. It is the widespread secondary publicity surrounding last week’s debate and the polls reporting his huge victory that have boosted Farage’s popularity without prompting the great majority of non-viewers to rethink their attitude to the European Union.)
In the short term the advantage lies with Farage, but the longer term prospects for his party and his cause have not – yet – improved.
An edited version of this commentary appears in the latest issue of the Sunday Times