Britain's election: With 1 win and 3.8m votes, what happened to 'British Tea Party' the UKIP?

United Kingdom Independent Party leader Nigel Farage reacting after he failed to win the seat of Thanet South in Margate, on May 8, 2015, during the British general election. -- PHOTO: AFP
United Kingdom Independent Party leader Nigel Farage reacting after he failed to win the seat of Thanet South in Margate, on May 8, 2015, during the British general election. -- PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (Bloomberg Politics) - This morning, as the final ballots from Britain'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 (UKIP) 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.

Election obituaries are roping in the fall of Mr 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 centre-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.

Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives attempted to cut into UKIP's support by promising a referendum on leaving the European Union. At the same time, Mr Cameron couched his own support for EU membership by saying its terms for immigration should be renegotiated. UKIP favoured a five-year waiting period for new immigrants to receive benefits; Mr 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 Labour's Scottish members being wiped out by the pro-Europe SNP), and an opportunity to build.