More Than Just A Protest Vote? – The Psychology of UKIP Support

“Support for UKIP is just a protest vote”, and “UKIP voters are just extreme Tories” are common sentiments in mainstream political commentary, but are these ideas reflected in academic evidence about support for Britain’s fastest-growing political movement?  In this article, I examine the rise in UKIP support in relation to some research that we’ve been conducting at the University of Lincoln (UK) in the run-up to the General Election in May.

The Rise of UKIP

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), spearheaded by the charismatic ‘man-of-the-people’ Nigel Farage, is shaking up the British political landscape, by storming to victory in last year’s European elections and gaining their first Westminster MPs in 2014 Conservative defections (and subsequent by-elections) in Clacton, and Rochester & Strood.  Mainstream media commentary of this rise in support has advocated two paths to UKIP support:

  1. support for UKIP is a protest against the established order in Westminster;
  2. UKIP supported are just bigots and racists

But what’s the evidence behind UKIP support?

Recently, we in the Forensic and Clinical Psychology Research Group at the University of Lincoln have been working with local news agency The Lincolnite in order to investigate the political views of the people in Lincolnshire during the run-up 2015 General Election.  Lincolnshire is a large geographical county, which is traditionally supportive of the Conservative Party.  One exception to this in the City of Lincoln constituency, which until the 2010 General Election was held by Labour (this looks to be a likely outcome at the upcoming election, too).  Further, support for UKIP seems to be rising in some areas of the county – particularly in the Boston and Grimsby areas.  So why might this be?

The Concept of Ontological Insecurity and its link to Political Party Support

The idea that we’re currently examining is called ‘ontological insecurity’.  Put simply, this is a feeling of insecurity that people have when their view of the world is challenged by changing social values.  It is also brought about by economic instability through unstable employment conditions), and perceptions that society is essentially unequal.  The causes of such insecurities are many, including mass immigration, growing secularism, and the wider economic downturn (and responses to these issues by the existing political system).

Until our recent work, there was no measurement instrument for ontological insecurity, meaning that claims about its impact on political and social views.  However, using our new scale, we are now able to scientifically examine levels of ontological insecurity in relation to support for different political parties and ideologies.  Our data (based on a current sample of around 350 Lincolnshire residents, which is more than enough to detect reliable statistically significant relationships) revealed some interesting trends in relation to levels of ontological insecurity in relation to both social and political attitudes, and support for specific political parties.

On a measure of political ideology, which contained questions in relation to attitudes towards crime, welfare, and government involvement in civil life, ontological insecurity was positively associated with right-leaning views.  That is, as ontological insecurity grew higher, people’s political views became more conservative.  The question remained, however, about whether ontological insecurity differed according to support for specific political parties.

Our analysis was conclusive.  There were no differences in the level of ontological insecurity that were expressed by supporters of any party, with one exception – UKIP.  On our newly-developed scale, UKIP supporters were significantly more ontologically insecure than supporters of any political party.

Now, these differences indicate a relationship between UKIP support and increased levels of ontological insecurity.  Whilst this relationship appears to be conclusive at face value, further analysis is needed before we can confirm the direction of the relationship.  Two possibilities exist:

  1. ontological insecurity causes an individual to be drawn to UKIP
  2. exposure to UKIP’s messages causes ontological insecurity

UKIP and the Insecure Voter 

On explanation one, it appears as though a straightforward model of UKIP support could be advanced.  Under this model, people who are ontologically insecure, through feeling uncomfortable with the pace of social change, and the reduction of security in the workplace are buoyed by UKIP’s anti-EU, and predominantly populist rhetoric.  At last, they think, there’s somebody standing up for us – a party who outwardly advocate “British jobs for British workers”, and a swing back to days gone by, with simple, traditional social values and a strict upholding of law and order.

The second explanation for UKIP support is slightly different, and more akin to a traditional ‘influence’ model of communication.  Here, being exposed to ideas such as ‘floods of migrants’ coming to the UK to steal British people’s jobs, and debates around the changing nature of Britain’s second most-spoken language (a language that will always be something other than English – a fact apparently lost on several media commentators), causes ontological insecurity within people and communities.

The key difference between these two routes to UKIP support is this – in the first, people are actively seeking somebody to represent their view at a national level, whereas in the second, people are, in essence, talked into existential anxiety through political communication.

An observation of UKIP’s campaigning strategies in areas with high and low levels of immigration.  In a recent visit to Boston (an area with very high levels of immigration), UKIP leader Nigel Farage stressed the stresses of local families who were concerned about strains on the health system and school places, suggesting that these issues were caused by “the uncontrolled flood of migrants“.  In contrast, other studies have revealed that support for UKIP has also grown in areas with low levels of immigration.  UKIP supporters in these areas are said by some commentators to be concerned about national identity and sovereignty – key topics in the vast majority of UKIP media appearances.

So What’s Driving UKIP Support? 

The key question still remains – what is driving support to a party like UKIP?  According to our data, ontological insecurity appears to be intricately linked to an intention to vote UKIP.  The direction of this link is still something to test in different ways, but being uncomfortable with the pace of social change and feeling insecure within the workplace appear to be key issues that underpin UKIP support.  One thing that we can say with some certainty, though, is that support for UKIP does appear to have some form of psychological underpinning.  For that reason, it seems wise to suggest that support for UKIP does indeed represent more than ‘just a protest vote’.

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