John Curtice is Professor of politics at Strathclyde University, a co-editor of the British Social Attitudes annual report. A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of IPPR’s journal Juncture.
Since winning a record 3% of the vote at the last UK general election in 2010, UKIP’s average standing in the polls has now climbed to at least twice that figure. In the low-turnout police commissioner elections in November this year, it won as much as 11% of the vote in the areas where it stood. Much of this increase in support appears to have come at the expense of the Conservative party.
Unsurprisingly, Conservative MPs have taken fright at the prospect that votes lost to UKIP could mean vital parliamentary seats being captured by Labour. Meanwhile, and more surprisingly, Labour has also seemed willing to fill its sails with a eurosceptic wind. But are our politicians correct in assuming that the voters themselves are in a particularly eurosceptic mood?
Euroscepticism has long been popular in Britain. Indeed in the absence of a consistently pro-European message from the country’s main political parties, as there was for example in the late 1980s, such an outlook seems to be the default position of much of the British public. However, despite the eurozone crisis, the balance of opinion on whether Britain’s membership is a good thing or not is no more adverse to the EU now than it was a decade ago. Equally, the balance of opinion on whether Britain should stay in or get out is no more in favour now of getting out than it was a decade ago. The public pressure on our politicians to take a tough line on Europe is no greater now than it has been for most of the time that Britain has been a member.