Party-switching has been relatively common among British MEPs in recent years. In the past ten years, 13 MEPs have ended their term of office in a different party to the one they started it in, 9 per cent of all those elected. That is equivalent to almost 60 MPs changing allegiances in the House of Commons between elections, which is unheard of.
When we look closer at the figures we see that this phenomenon is largely down to one party in particular: Ukip. Ukip has been very successful in recent European Parliament elections, winning 12 seats in 2004 and 13 in 2009. But following both elections, the party struggled to keep hold of its MEPs. In total, eight UKIP MEPs have left the party while still in office since 2004.
This means that in the past decade an MEP elected for UKIP has had a 1 in 3 chance of leaving the party, through defection or sacking, before the next election. In contrast, only 6 per cent of Conservative MEPs have changed parties, while no Labour or Liberal Democrats have done so. Out of all party changes among British MEPs since 2004, 62% have been MEPs leaving Ukip.
Two Ukip MEPs – Marta Andreasen and David Campbell Bannerman – have defected to the Conservative Party. Others, most notably Robert Kilroy-Silk but also Nikki Sinclaire and Mike Nattrass, have formed their own parties after falling foul of the Ukip party leadership in one way or another. Various forms of impropriety did for Ashley Mote and Tom Wise. Godfrey Bloom, meanwhile, has been on a one-man mission to discredit both himself and his party in the most spectacular of fashions, a crusade which saw him eventually resign his membership. Ukip have, however, gained one new member in the European Parliament via the defection from the Conservative Party of the noted climate sceptic Roger Helmer.
At first glance, the omens for the May elections are not good. Ukip is going into the election with just six candidates that have previously served a full term as a Ukip: the same number of full-term incumbents with which they fought in 2009, when they were a rather smaller outfit. Given that Ukip look set to either win or finish second, the spectre of more defections should be upmost in the party hierarchy’s mind.
However, the elections may instead mark a move towards a further professionalisation of their operation. Patrick O’Flynn, for example, is the party’s leading candidate in the Ukip-friendly East of England constituency, and as the party’s Director of Communications is said to have toughened its message discipline and modernised its internal communications procedures.
Ukip may be attempting to move away from their image as a gaggle of un-PC campaigners and individuals, and towards a more traditional political party with vetted policies, a degree of collective discipline, and strong leadership from the centre. Making this transition may help stem the flow of defections, but it may also dilute their appeal as a party which embodies anti-establishment sentiment.
Sean Kippin and Richard Berry work for Democratic Audit, which is based at the London School of Economics