A fascinating thing about the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP): the worse its press, the better it does. In the run-up to the Clacton parliamentary by-election in October—a race to see whether defecting Tory MP Douglas Carswell would return to Parliament under UKIP’s banner—Matthew Parris of the Times devoted his column to ridiculing not just UKIP but its elderly supporters: “Clacton-on-Sea is a friendly resort trying not to die, inhabited by friendly people trying not to die.” UKIP won the election with nearly 60 percent of the vote. In the aftermath of November’s by-election in Rochester and Strood—which settled the fate of another Tory defector, Mark Reckless—the Guardian’s Nick Cohen described UKIP as “an alliance of the septic and the geriatric: a movement of the empty-headed led by the foul-minded.” Cohen concluded that while the party wasn’t quite fascist, it certainly played with racism. In which case, there must be an awful lot of closet Nazis in Rochester because UKIP had just won the seat with 42 percent of the vote.

The sheer disgust that many liberals direct at UKIP reflects the fact that Britain is undergoing a culture war. On the side of ordinary folk with old-fashioned tastes is UKIP. Pitched against them is the entire edifice of the metropolitan elite located in the nicer bits of London: the mainstream parties, big business, and the media. That this battle is taking place is no shock to anyone with eyes and ears. But that UKIP has become the people’s party is a real surprise, considering its beginnings on the marginal, eccentric right.

UKIP was founded in 1993 by academic Alan Sked. He intended the party to be a broad vehicle for opposition to Britain’s membership in the European Union—a cause that has long attracted people from the right and left. The right attacks the EU’s infringement of sovereignty, whereas the left regards it as an effort to impose free-market capitalism from above. But while Sked hoped to create some grand coalition of the high-minded, the early party quickly became a bolt hole for ex-Conservative Party members concerned with what they saw as growing softness within Torydom. Sked quit as leader shortly after the 1997 general election that swept the Labour Party to power. UKIP, he said, had become “infected by the far-right.” He called its new leader, Nigel Farage, “a dimwitted racist.”

Nevertheless, the conditions of the 2000s were the perfect incubator for UKIP’s politics of anxiety. British household debt more than quadrupled since 1990, pockets of poverty festered, and new issues emerged that liberals did not want to discuss in front of the children. The government signed a treaty with the EU that opened Britain’s markets to East European immigrants. Labour predicted that just 13,000 would arrive. The actual number was more than one million. While all this was going on, politicians were engaged in a race to the center. Labour abandoned its old economic socialism, and the Tories became more socially tolerant.

The result was that when the credit crunch hit in 2008, all the parties looked eerily similar, and any voter who wanted serious reform of the system had few options within the mainstream. The Conservative Party won the 2010 election, with enough seats to form a coalition government, on the strength that it wasn’t the Labour Party—but it lacked broad-based popular support or the enthusiasm of its restive right-wing base. One of Prime Minister David Cameron’s first priorities was to legalize gay marriage.

UKIP took a long time to exploit this situation effectively. In 2004, it placed third in elections for the European parliament on a quit-the-EU platform; in 2009, UKIP came second. The party was definitively, maybe crazily, right-wing. Its manifesto was Thatcherite, with a prominent libertarian streak: no gay marriage, but perhaps some decriminalization of drugs and a hearty endorsement of flatter taxes and smaller government. Had more people read and understood the manifesto, they might never have voted for it—but it had a great salesman in Nigel Farage, party leader, but for a brief hiatus, since 2006. Farage smokes unashamedly, drinks thirstily, has an eye for feminine pulchritude, and is at home talking politics with the man down the pub. To meet him is to instantly like him—if you like that sort of thing. To centrist politicians raised on a puritan diet of political correctness, he is like some horror from the mummy’s tomb. But to those who wear a hangover with pride, Farage is a tonic to politics as usual.

Farage’s populism helped UKIP reach out to working-class voters who typically stuck with the left. All the time that journalists—such as myself—were characterizing UKIP as the party of the wealthy country-club set, the party was quietly capitalizing upon the growing sense that Labour had lost its soul. Two urban myths appeared to confirm the death of the left: it is commonly said that half of Labour’s membership lives in London and that half is composed of state school teachers. These statistics are based upon leaks and rumors rather than concrete facts, but they paint a picture that fits with the prejudices of voters who have come to identify less and less with socialism and more and more with Farage’s sociability. In 2014, UKIP placed first in the European elections and, for the first time, ate greedily into Labour’s vote. thisarticleappeared-janfeb15

At this point, the party changed. UKIP was always torn between those who saw it as an anti-European pressure group, trying to move Britain to the right without ever taking power, and those who wanted it to emerge as a serious party capable of winning seats on a platform that would ally the socially conservative middle class and the economically blighted working class. In the wake of its victory in Labour areas during the European elections, the party embraced the latter, more populist strategy. The old manifesto was dropped in favor of offering something to everyone who felt locked out of mainstream politics: protection of the National Health Service, the promise of lower taxes, withdrawal from the EU and, crucially, a new emphasis upon reducing European immigration. UKIP insists that it simply wants to create a more level playing field, ending the bias towards unskilled European immigration and welcoming skilled workers from the rest of the world. But on the campaign trail it is obvious what voters have interpreted this new political direction to mean: UKIP will safeguard your job by closing the borders.

Comparisons with American populist presidential candidates are striking. Figures like Pat Buchanan—who in 1992 and 1996 wanted to outlaw abortion and build a border fence, while also protecting American businesses with trade barriers—are accused of philosophical inconsistency by those who just didn’t get their appeal. Yet this mix of left- and right-wing ideas makes perfect sense if you see yourself as the representative not of an ideological tradition but of a particular constituency—the constituency of people who once had something but who feel they’ve lost it, and they want it back.

It is often said, with little proof, that UKIP voters want to turn Britain back to the 1950s. To which one has to ask, “And why not?” Who wouldn’t want to return to an era of world power, mass church attendance, and jobs for life? Speaking to voters in both Clacton and Rochester, I was struck by the narrative of decline. In Clacton, one woman told me that because of mass immigration it was impossible for young people to get low-skilled jobs anymore—so they hit the bottle, did drugs, went on benefits, or fled to London. Once upon a time, Clacton was a thriving seaside town. Now the glamour is faded; the pier is empty, the amusement rides stand silent.

Things were also grim in Rochester, where the hospital has for years been stuck in special measures (a notice of failed performance) and the visitor is struck by the sense of post-industrial decay. Sitting with UKIP’s candidate on a park bench in front of the breezy Medway River, I was told that in fact the constituency enjoyed falling crime and rising employment. But that statistical evidence is eclipsed by the bigger truth that large swathes of Britain are ignored by the powerful. Politics, culture, and finance are London-centric. People trying to build lives and do jobs in the provinces have adopted the weary, abused look of all those sad districts governed by the chichi Capitol in The Hunger Games.

That said, don’t expect UKIP to form the next government. In Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system the recipient of the most votes wins the constituency, which means having to gain margins of around 40 percent to win any seat—a tall order for a party used to getting just 3 percent. There are only about six seats that UKIP are fairly confident of exploiting the divisions between the main parties to win. And even if they found themselves enjoying a significant representation in a hung parliament after next year’s elections, establishment leaders would rather ally with the devil than invite Farage’s party into a coalition government.

Therein lies UKIP’s problem: it has a ceiling to its support that is defined by popular perceptions of its respectability. Polls show that the number of voters who admire the party is dwarfed by those who strongly dislike it. In some parts of the country, it is toxic. When Nigel Farage visited Scotland during its recent independence campaign, he was booed, threatened, and forced to hide out in a pub—which may have been a blessing in disguise. Paradoxically, while the rise of UKIP has illustrated the failure of mainstream politics, its limited success has demonstrated the establishment’s stubborn resilience. UKIP, like Buchanan-style populism, has probably gone as far as it can go. The establishment, in turn, has been squeezed as far as it will permit its own humiliation. All the money, the power, the influence, and, critically, the electoral system itself, still favor the status quo.

What UKIP can do is chip away at enough of the support of the Conservatives and Labour to force them to change their policies. It is generally thought that UKIP could cost David Cameron the next election by denying him majorities in dozens of seats. The smarter Tories acknowledge this and are urging a return to red-meat conservative policies. If the UKIP experience has a global message for the right, it is that while the base might often seem an electoral liability, elections are usually impossible to win without it. In an age when all politics are loathed equally by the voters, the ability to generate enthusiasm among a dwindling band of true believers suddenly counts for a great deal.

Timothy Stanley is the author of The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan and Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.