Personality Crisis? Did the “personalisation of politics” lead to UKIP’s rise?

Politics

In the May 2014 European elections, Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP from hereon) polled in first place, with 26.6 per cent of the national vote. Despite UKIP’s now ostensible popularity, they are academically under analysed as a political movement. There have been studies over the past decade into ‘who’ votes for UKIP, comprising studies of socio-economically grouped votes for the party; such as the ‘left behind[1]’ (Ford, Goodwin, 2014[i]), “polite racists and xenophobes… grey haired Tories” (Ford, Goodwin, Cutts, 2012, p.16), “blue collar old labour” (Ford, Goodwin, Cutts, 2012,p.3), and the “politically dispossessed” (Ford, 2013, p.80) but less examined is ‘why’.

Why factors are contended to include “globalisation” (Mason,2014), “the economic incapability of acclimatizing to today’s post-industrial Britain” (Ford,Goodwin,2014) and a distaste for the contemporary change within Britain’s “culture and identity” (Kaufmann,2014). This literature review will examine where I believe there is a major gap of research into the support factors of UKIP. That research is in the ‘personalisation of politics’ within a wider UK trend.

With the existing political focus on personalities not parties, there is a gap in greater understanding as to why people support UKIP, and the fluctuations facing our now splintering democracy.

The theory of the ‘personalisation of politics’; is defined “that individual political actors have become more prominent, to the detriment of parties, and collective identities” (Karvonen, 2010 p.13). No studies have applied the theoretical framework to a burgeoning populist radical right party, on a longitudinal basis in the UK. Consequently UKIP provides a useful vehicle for ascertaining whether personalisation is increasing, its magnitude of change, and whether this is a core support base for UKIP. Most importantly UKIP, as a case study, can push us towards a greater understanding of how parliamentary politics is shifting. There are key gaps in understanding within the field, and as a small party UKIP is well placed for analysis. This is because most of the studies (bar studies in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands) exclude small parties. Consequently there is a large scope for the further study of personalisation within the UK’s now ‘5 party system’, and whether this has led to UKIP support.

Personalisation of politics’ literature is defined into two categories. Studies that I de-mark as ‘presidentialisation’ in parliamentary systems (inc. Langer, 2011, Karvonen, 2010; Hermansson, 2010 et al.). These studies focus on the ever more important role of prime ministers/party leaders and their characteristics, to the detriment of parties. The other interrelated category are studies of ‘party leader effects’ in elections. These are quantitative examinations inquiring into the effects of leaders upon voter’s party support, enquiring whether party leaders ”lift” or ”sink” their parties (inc. Curtice, 2005, Holmberg, 2005, Oscarsson & Holmberg, 2008 et al.). However due to the scope of this field I will be focusing on the theoretical and case study literature. There are also psychological theories of ‘political personalisation’ focussing on the individual citizen (Caprara,2007 for example). This is a huge semi-related area I will only touch upon for reference.

I will break down the literature into; a broader overview of the existing literature’s case studies of presidentialisation of the parliamentary system. Then a more focussed review (owning to its greater relation to Farage) of the literature on the role of the media/social media and power of personality. Questioning whether institutional issues, or the media, has led to the proliferation of personalisation; analysing major academic arguments in relation to Farage.

Presidentialisation as personalisation, and the case for a smaller study.

Presidentialisation “examines where the core concern is the ever more major role of party leaders in parliamentary systems” (Karvonen,2010,p.6) and the consequent effects on voting habits. It is the main element of personalisation theory. It is often evidenced by the “referring to candidates rather than the parties they belong to” (Dalton,McAllister,&Wattenberg,2000,p34); the permutation of “leader pictures for party icons” (McAllister,1996); and the proclivity to “label cabinets after their leaders” (Bean&Mughan,1989,p3). Few academics disagree with these examples in western democracies. However there is an ongoing debate over causes, evidence and effect. The literature is extremely nebulous; for example although Heffernan & Webb agree that presidentialisation exists, they argue it has “little or no discernible effect” (2005, p45.) they are supported by academics questioning existing conceptual and empirical deficiencies (Hermansson&Persson,2010; Persson&Wiberg,2011).

Anthony Mughan looked at the UK’s parliamentary system before the year 2000, arguing that party leaders of the major parties “now figure more prominently on both media coverage and in the party, than the party itself” (Mughan,2000, p.235). He has academic support including (Langer,2010, Webb&Poguntke,2010, and McAllister,2007). There is nevertheless an ongoing academic debate about the legitimacy of the theory. The evidence is often extremely correlative, this is due to “the absence of consistent definitions, methods, and assessments of systemic and contextual variables” (Mansell,2010, p.35). Karvonen (2010) in his analysis of modern parliamentary democracies, including the UK, supports Mansell’s questioning of the evidence of the theory, arguing the data is at best ‘mixed’. The need for further research is therefore paramount in order to satisfy this incoherence.

However despite criticism many academics have found evidence for the presidentialisation thesis. Langer as opposed to Karvonen finds a correlating trend over time. In her examination of Prime Minister’s from Attlee to Cameron, she cites that coverage of Prime Ministers private lives “rose from around 1 percent of the leader’s coverage in 1945, to 8 percent during Tony Blair’s tenure in office” (Langer, 2007, p.57). However as Adams and Maier (2010) and Karvonen (2010) argue, whilst defending the findings, that this is one of only a few longitudinal analyses, with most relying on studies within one period, thus weakening their claims of a trend. The issues of empiricism within the theory is debatable, on smaller case studies a stronger trend does appear, such as with Johannes Bjerling’s, study of Swedish party leaders from 1979-2010(2010).

Farage and UKIP however, provide a strong case study for the prominence of a leader over a party, with polling data being taken in the run up to the election, huge data sets could be used limiting the evidential issues Karvonen (2010) argues. A crude example to highlight a possible cause for evaluation; using “Nigel Farage” as a search term on Google News, gives “15,200 results” whilst search term, “UKIP” responds “36,300 results”, Farage delivers a huge proportion of the results. This begs the question as to whether in today’s personalized system, are UKIP nothing without Farage, or would Farage be nothing without our current personalised system?

There is a case for a new study into the UK as a whole, because of our sudden shift to a multi-party democracy, including minor parties such as UKIP. The issue regarding much of the literature is of scope, for most of the studies the focus has been on national leaders, and opposition party leaders (e.g. Mughan & McAllister). Focussing only on major party leaders, as with the predominate academics Karvonen (2010) and Langer (2011), leaves a massive investigative problem within todays more diverse electoral system. This is why it is important to re-evaluate within the frame of UKIP, as Farage appears to support a presidentialisation trend as Langer, Mughan, Webb and Poguntke argue. Nevertheless presidentialisation it is often argued to suffer from “ambiguous” (Adams, 2010, p.1) evidential certainty by academics such as Karvonen, Adams and Maier (2010). Therefore a further layer of depth of study will help satisfy the debate upon the theory.

The evidential basis for presidentialisation is varied. Many studies are questioned over their evidence and methodology; large longitudinal studies, such as by Mughan, (2000) focus only on major parties. However this allows a gap for the study of fractured non binary democracies. Within frameworks of more fractional multi-party democracies such as Sweden rather than just major parties, there is stronger evidence for personalisation (Bjerling, 2012). This is arguably especially so for the UK which has highly “mediatized” politics (Langer, 2010) and an ever rapidly fracturing political landscape. Nevertheless the evidence of presidentialisation on small party leaders is still mixed. Kreig (2011) found little correlation in his study of German party leaders; however in contrast to Reinemann and Wilke, (2007) found strong correlation of German party leaders. Thus the theory needs further clarification, with Farage and UKIP a strong case for study.

There is a key failing in the current literature in analysing minor parties within personalisation theory. Mughan, Karvonen and Langer amongst others fail to study how small parties are growing through the two personalisation theses of; a) the changing of politics due to the media, and, b) the erosion of traditional major parties. Current understanding, and their focus on major parties, does not reflect the effect Farage is having. Karvonen argues that “major party leaders gain consistently stronger recognition as polling day draws closer, while the visibility of minor party leaders exhibits little change” (2010, p7), this does not fit the current trend, and needs re-evaluating in the UK context. With only around 60-70% of voters sticking to the two main parties in the UK, one asks whether a reason for the main parties lowered vote is presidentialisation, and personalisation. Many voters are now favouring Farage over mainstream leaders such as Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, their perception of all three as “homogenous” (despite Farage’s background being arguably very similar).

The scope for study appears to have gaps for domestic inquiries. However presidentialisation has also been studied internationally upon modern democracies by Poguntke and Webb. They argue that the “overwhelming weight of evidence lies in favour of the presidentialisation thesis’ (Webb&Poguntke,2005,p.346). Nevertheless current arguments centre on huge national differences in personalisation (Kriesi,2011).  This general trend of findings is again based upon only main parties, in a pre-dominantly (in data) pre-recession Europe. This is a weakness within the now fracturing politics of Europe, where the political landscape is shifting. There are also methodological issues, Karvonen illustrates this issue, by criticising Webb and Poguntke’s research as “predominantly reliant on secondary sources, at times bordering on the anecdotal” (Karvonen, 2010,p47.).

UKIP and Farage are a great example for studying presidentialisation within a fracturing parliamentary system. This is because UKIP became popular post-recession, has a strong media presence, and tries very hard to differentiate itself from the main parties. One of the main reasons for studying UKIP is that the political make-up is shifting. UKIP exist within the trend that “the operation of democratic systems is experiencing fundamental change, without any concomitant change in their formal institutional structures” (McAllister, 2007, p.579) a change he argues to be the decline of ‘centrist’ parties because of personalisation, presidentialisation and the powerlessness of parties in an age of absent ideology. Nevertheless this is questioned as the major cause of our democratic shift from the centre, with many believing evidentially and theoretically personalisation to be a much more “complex picture” (Karvonen, 2010) than McAllister et al. argue.

As a case study Farage is a strong charismatic leader and shows the huge importance of leadership over party, the role presidentialization/personalisation has had; and the continuing importance of managing a large media profile both online and off. Most importantly UKIP highlights this public shift away from the centre, or as Kirchheimer labels them “catch-all parties” (Kirchheimer,1966,p.66).

The role of the media; mediatisation and personalisation.

Having your leader in the media sphere is the lifeblood of a party (as Karvonen, Langer and Mughan argue). Farage is a master of getting himself in the media, and will even be on an episode of Channel 4’s Gogglebox next year[2]. However Farage and UKIP are only part of a greater trend taking advantage of, ‘politainment’[3], and the “mediatisation of politics” (Langer,2011,Katz & Mair,1994,Rahat & Shaefer).

Within the literature, all personalisation theories agree upon the importance of the media in presidentialization, and the increasing importance of leader’s personalities. As Davis summarises “news stories, especially television, are routinely framed from the point of view of central actors” (Davis, 1990: p.19). Farage makes a point to be in frame as often as possible; Farage for example has been on BBC Question Time the most out of anyone in the UK (Dimitrov,2014). Academics studying personalisation argue factors such as the “personality of the party leader” (Farrell, 1996, p21) are of great importance to the electorate. One only has to look at the bacon sandwich battle[4], between Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage in the news recently to exemplify this importance.

Academia in this area is much more focussed, but multidisciplinary, from leadership theory and media studies to communications theory. Most however agree upon Newman’s idea of the importance of “manufactured political images” (Newman,1999, as based on Davis,1990). Farage is a master of media communication, with the importance of his carefully created everyman, no nonsense, beer swilling, cigarette smoking self, a large support draw to the party and the media; he arguably makes for exciting television, because of his challenge to safe centrism. Farage is selling a perception of himself, understanding the old adage that; “all publicity is good publicity”, and it does appear to be working[5].

Current understanding is centred on the theory that “the media, and especially television, have an inherent tendency to personalize political reporting, concentrating on individuals rather than abstract institutions or policies”, Langer (2007,p.48). However there is an ongoing debate of what caused political personalisation, (Rahat, Shaefer,2007) blame the “party’s organizational changes”, like the “centrism” McAllister argues for igniting personalisation. However the consensus mainly falls into the (Katz&Mair,1994, Langer,2010, Mazzoleni,2000; Meyrowitz,1985) camp; who argue parties have adjusted to the media’s changing reporting and the growth of television. Farage’s preponderance in the media is arguably because of fascination, however the changes UKIP have undergone cement the effect of personalisation’s perceived effect on the popular vote. Therefore it is arguable that many within the public find Farage different to other politicians, outside the centre and political consensus; and this didn’t happen by accident, and is indebted to television led personalisation.

The rise of social media is an underestimated factor as well in academic literature. Most studies have focussed on analysing television and news media (Mughan, Karvonen&Langer) which in today’s world is not the whole picture. For example in one of the few studies of media representation and UKIP; Dimitrov in 2014 examined populism in the media without examining personalisation theory or social media, this is a trend across all the literature.

UKIP and Farage are a strong case study within this scope of social media personalisation. UKIP has more Facebook likes than Labour for example, and regularly has a large audience on all its YouTube videos, and actively campaigns using Twitter. Reading any comments section of any online newspaper highlights the massive proliferation in support for Farage and UKIP, arguably by supporters (cyberkippers) trying to control the airwaves.

Many academics have argued within the theory, that there has been a shift from party ideology and policies, towards how viewers relate to politicians (Langer,2007,2010,McAllister,Karvonen). Some academics dispute the influence to some degree, with little evidence of an “increasing concentration of media coverage” (Kriesi,2011.p.1). Nevertheless people appear to relate to Farage over the perceived out of touch leaders of the three main parties, as evidenced by the idea that people relate to “non-political character traits rather than professional traits in politicians” (Zamora,2010,p.13, Sarcinelli,1999.). This is supported by Miller, Wattenberg, and Malanchuk, in 1986 who argued that voters “think about candidates in terms of a limited number of broad categories, rather than in terms of a multitude of discrete traits” (1986,p37) simplifying the personality equation.

With the ever “increasing importance of televised leaders’ debates during national election campaigns” (Hellweg et al, 1992, p.2) and ‘…television turning faces into arguments’ (Hart,1999,p.34). Many comment upon Farage’s charisma and populist rhetoric (Ford, Goodwin, Kaufmann, Becket and others), but the academic literature has failed to examine newly formed charismatic leaders of populist parties in the media, within the personalisation framework. As Max Weber (1922) argued, “charismatic leadership”, is a legitimising factor of power, something UKIP profits from; with Farage himself arguably a charismatic shrewd political operator. Farage undoubtedly appeals to many parts of the electorate, and knows how the media works. It is possible he is perceived to be more honest by his supporters, which studies have shown to be the main factor in candidate choice, (Kinder, Peters, Abelson, & Fiske, 1980) and supported by studies in Australia (McAllister, 2000) and Germany (Brettschneider & Gabriel, 218, 2002).

As a case to study, UKIP is fascinating as it bridges both of the outlined reasons of the changing of politics due to the media, the role of personality, and the erosion of traditional major parties. With some of his EU parliament speeches the most popular speeches on YouTube of any UK politician today[6], and his advert for Paddy Power garnering 155,000 votes[7]; Farage has a huge draw. In context David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Conference 2014 has 61,186 views[8], which would provide strong evidence for the mediatisation and personalisation thesis as a support base for UKIP.

The theories exemplified in the literature all leave a fundamental gap within the rise of parties defined by populist rhetoric which inherently need to be publicised to the masses as Beckett (2014) argues “The public want politicians who represent their feelings about ideology, Farage’s has the ability to embody people’s personal anxieties”. Indeed this is supported by (Meyrowitz, 1985, p.24) who believes “television has lowered politicians to the audiences level”, and consequently who they want as a representative, which often is a “mirror” of themselves (Renshon, 1995. p.201). One can argue that Farage sells, after his debate upon the EU with Nick Clegg, he bounced upwards in popularity from 31% satisfaction in mid-March, to 40% in mid-April after the debates (second debate,2/04)[9].

Institutional change, are the parties themselves to blame for the rise of UKIP

One ongoing debate that could also be addressed through studying the personalisation of politics in relation to Farage is how we are witnessing a collapse of the major parties support, after redefining themselves as “class-mass parties” as Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000; Franklin 2001, and Mackie and Valen, 1992 argue. The literature is generally split in terms of which factors academics feel is most important to the cause of personalisation theory, however many argue personalisation has become existent because the political sphere, has a centralised dichotomy of politics (Karvonen,2010; Hermansson,2010), with the mainstream parties “catch all post-modern parties” (Rahat&Shaefer,2007,p.4),  encompassing everything.

This is in contrast to how people perceive themselves as “individuals rather than as parts of groups” (Bauman, 2001, p.12). Now that there is a gap created for a radical right party, where the conservatives once stood, UKIP’s leadership is the “chief means of engaging the political interest of publics” (Poguntke & Webb,2005,p.21). Many agree that this is a key element of the personalisation thesis, as ideologies have faded, personalities have come to the fore. Therefore within the literature further analysis can provide some interesting analysis of UKIP within this framing idea. Theoretically Persson, and Hermansson (2013) posit this idea in relation to personalisation and presidentialisation for today “voters are increasingly unaffiliated. Instead of basing choices on political substance, ideologies and substantive issues, voters focus on the packaging and presentation of political messages” (2013, p42).

Farage is arguably doing well, not because of his or UKIP’s qualities, but by the mistakes of the major parties in their march to centrism, losing the essence of what they originally defined. As Keith Mitchell MP points out “I am afraid the UKIP leader has a style and a manner of speaking that connects with ordinary mortals much better than professional politicians” (Beckett, 2014). This is an idea academics Barisione, 2009 and Pitkin, 1967 corroborate; perceived “closeness to the masses” has become vital for any leader.

Farage is profiting from the pre-existing weakening of traditional ties between voters and parties (Dalton, 2000; Mair, 2005) and appeals to specific sub sections of society and “the left behind” (Ford,2013). Farage to his supporters is believed to be like them, unlike the mainstream party leaders, a vital support signifier (Caprara & Zimbardo, 2004). There has been a weakening of previous links between political parties, and various subgroups of society since the march to the middle (Giddens, 1990; Bauman, 2006; Franklin,1992). However there is academic derision; with Curtice arguing there is still a trend within partisan party orientated nations to support party and leader in unison (Curtice, 2005).

Conclusion

A study upon Farage and UKIP could reveal a remarkable amount of ideas with regards to personalisation, mediatisation and presidentialisation. So little is known, it is possible a study could show UKIP as a symptom of the end of personalisation, and a movement instead towards ideology again, as social classes splinter and inequality grows. If personalisation produces little insight into UKIP support, it suggests their revisionist policies and ideology are major structures in their support. UKIP could answer the two main questions of the theory, of the importance of institutional change or the media, within a major party collapse. With the changing landscape of politics personalisation needs to be constantly re-evaluated, especially when the evidence for it appears so readily and where politicians must now “not be beyond people”, but “be of and like them” (Renshon,1995p.201).

 

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[1] Left behind definition – “…older, working-class, white voters who lack the educational qualifications, incomes and skills that are needed to adapt and thrive amid a modern post-industrial economy” (Ford, Goodwin, 2014).
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/nov/11/nigel-farage-appear-googlebox-spin-off
[3] As coined by Conley and Schultz (2000) meaning “the collapse of politics into entertainment”
[4] Nigel Farage manages to eat a bacon sandwich without incident at the Heywood and Middleton by-election[4].
[5] http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2014/09/27/comres-poll-farage-as-popular-as-cameron/ accessed 6/9/14
[6] ‘Who the Hell You Think You Are?’ Nigel Farage throws egg in Eurocrat faces.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gm9q8uabTsUploaded-on-Nov,26,2010-views=1,386,134 as of 11/9/2014
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXhLMIDscTI  Nigel Farage Swings for Europe this Ryder Cup Published on Sep 25, 2014 155,831 accessed – 9/9/14
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jgs4UJwWtow – accessed 11/09/2014
[9] Political Monitor:Satisfaction Ratings1997-Present https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/88/Political-Monitor-Satisfaction-Ratings-1997Present.aspx?view=wide#2013

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