One Win, 3.8 Million Votes: What Happened to the 'British Tea Party'?

In falling short, the UK Independence Party shifted the terms of British debate.

Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), listens to a speech during his political party's Spring conference at the Winter Gardens in Margate, U.K., on Friday, Feb. 27, 201

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

This morning, as the final ballots from the UK's general election were counted, a simple image started to burn up the Facebook meme circuit. With little adornment, it shamed the British electoral system—first past the post races, where bare pluralities are enough to win—for the failure of the United Kingdom Independence Party to break through. The single UKIP seat on the board hardly reflected the 22-year old party's surge to become Britain's third largest party, a quadrupling of its vote total.

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Election obituaries are roping in the fall of Nigel Farage, the party's iconic leader, who failed to take a seat away from the Conservative Party and fulfilled his pledge to quit. Even if he leads the party again—he has not ruled out running for the leadership in September—UKIP's failure to break through might look like a setback for the "British Tea Party."

That might be the wrong way of looking at the result. The American Tea Party movement grew inside the Republican Party. When it could be blamed for lost elections, as when one of its candidates (Christine O'Donnell) primaried a moderate Republican who was on track to win a Senate seat (Delaware's Mike Castle), it was due to internal, not external, bleeding. The Tea Party was not out to spoil elections for Republicans. And UKIP did not spoil elections for the Conservatives.

Instead, both movements shifted the boundaries of debate in their countries' main center-right party. After the Tea Party, it became unacceptable for Republicans to voice support for the bank bailouts, or for the health care mandates that had been part of prior Republican reform plans; it became dangerous to support the Federal Reserve as it currently exists. David Cameron's Conservatives attempted to cut into UKIP's support by promising a referendum on leaving the European Union. At the same time, Cameron couched his own support for EU membership by saying its terms for immigration should be renegotiated. UKIP favored a five-year waiting period for new immigrants to receive benefits; Cameron's party came out for a four-year period.

UKIP's popularity and hard campaigning slightly shifted the terms of debate, and proved that Eurosceptic voters needed to be tended to by anyone wanting to win a majority. They were no longer a rump of the Conservatives; they were a threat. While UKIP's leadership is skeptical of any referendum with terms set by the Conservatives, it sees the election as an impetus for electoral reform, a weakening of the Europhiles (with Labor's Scottish members being wiped out by the pro-Europe SNP), and an opportunity to build. 

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