The Nigel Farage Paradox: the higher his public profile, the lower is public support to leave the EU

by Stephen Tall on April 7, 2014

Nigel Farage

Here is the Nigel Farage paradox: the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.

    Sunder Katwala, director of British Future (New Statesman, 3 April 2014)

And here are two YouGov graphs that illustrate the Nigel Farage Paradox…

As Ukip poll ratings rise, disapproval of UK’s membership of EU falls

ukip europe support

As Ukip poll ratings rise, importance of EU as issue for British voters falls

ukip europe interest

Sunder Katwala highlights the dangers for Ukip if it’s anti-EU campaign focuses only on “nostalgia for the past, anger about what has changed, and pessimism for the future”:

The Ukip leader may be making the political weather, but if Euroscepticism does not have a much broader appeal than Ukip, Nigel Farage risks becoming an unlikely heir to the late Tony Benn. Benn’s insurgency mobilised activism on the left as had not been achieved for a generation, but failed catastrophically at the ballot box. The Labour left-winger was the decisive voice in insisting on a referendum after Britain joined the EEC. Harold Wilson granted Benn’s wish. But though the anti-EEC campaign began in the lead, it lost the vote by a two-to-one margin. If Farage does secure a referendum, a Ukip-dominated campaign might prove a recipe for losing it.

But Sunder rightly highlights, too, the risk for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems of appealing only to status quo pro-Europeans:

Nick Clegg’s performance was narrowly pitched to pro-European voters who might come out for the LibDems in May 2014. That showed that the question of “who can give the pro-EU case popular reach beyond those already onside” still awaits an answer.

Uncomfortably for the Lib Dems the answer remains David Cameron if we don’t combine support for the European Union with support for reform of the EU. I suspect his post-debate triangulation was most successful in speaking for mainstream public opinion:

“Nick thinks there’s nothing wrong with Europe and we shouldn’t have a referendum, and Nigel thinks there’s nothing right with Europe and we should just get out and leave. They’re both wrong.”

The bigger question is not whether David Cameron would be able to persuade the British public that the UK should remain within the EU – but rather whether he can persuade his own party.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.