UKIP have won council seats right across the country in yesterday’s election. They’ve had a lot of coverage and undoubtedly many people will have voted for them as a protest against mainstream parties which are seen as detached and unable to provide solutions to the problems we face, but this is not the whole story. Whilst there are legitimate concerns with their language and policies and certainly several of their candidates have not covered themselves in glory, they are still winning votes and fulfilling a genuine role in UK democracy. 

It should be no great surprise that UKIP have gained most of their seats in unfashionable parts of rural England nor should they be thought of particularly as a protest party for their success in such areas. The anti-EU rhetoric and opposition to large scale immigration have certainly been popular but these are not the only reasons for their advancement; it’s just as likely that they have won support because they’ve filled a glaring gap in the political spectrum and energised a new group of activists. 

UKIP won sixteen seats on Lincolnshire County Council becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats are in the east of the county remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern seems to have emerged in Norfolk. They have won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers in the local economy; in small, isolated market towns that are off the beaten track and dispersed villages of nineteenth century red brick farm houses. It’s the countryside but it’s not picturesque in the traditional sense though it’s often eerily beautiful with wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is an essential part of life and if you don’t have one you’re cut off from the world. Wind farms are springing up everywhere with little perceived benefit to the local community. Welcome to the rural fringe. 

UKIP have spoken to a large group of people who hitherto haven’t really had their own party. In Scotland and Wales these votes would be swept up by Nationalists but in peripheral English regions they’re there for the taking. These are the rural working class who have for various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, never really engaged with the Labour movement and have been too remote from Labour heartlands to have been noticed. Voters who may have previously considered the Liberal Democrats and Greens, but aren’t that right-on and environmentally concerned. Most of the people voting UKIP are socially conservative and will traditionally have given their votes to the Conservative Party yet at a time when that party seems more elitist and metropolitan than ever, the working-class “common sense” rural voter can see little to keep them loyal to a party which has only really ever been the least bad option. These are not the ruling classes. They’ve always been here and they’ve always felt the way they do yet hitherto there hasn’t been a party which really reflected their beliefs.                                                                                                                       

If UKIP are to become a major player in British politics they, like other parties, must cultivate heartland areas and what we have seen in this election may be the first signs of an establishing powerbase. To dismiss them as clowns and fruit-cakes is unfair and will only serve to galvanise all those supporters who are glad to finally have a party to vote for with enthusiasm and who have never felt as if their concerns have been taken seriously before. Maybe the comparisons with the progress the SNP has made in Scotland in the last twenty years aren’t so far-fetched. This is a very interesting time for British political diversity and could yet enrich our democracy.