How the rise of UKIP is interpreted, and what the mainstream parties decide to do about it, is key for the future of British politics. However, there are a few points worth making that are so far missing from this debate.
Who does UKIP damage most?
The question about where UKIP’s vote comes from still seems to confound pundits, because of two apparently contradictory facts: on the one hand, UKIP’s support has spread north into traditional Labour areas, even winning a seat in Scotland. On the other, polling consistently shows that the bulk of their support comes from people who voted Conservative in 2010, with less than one in ten coming from 2010 Labour voters.
UKIP’s messaging has changed significantly to widen their appeal, staying silent on the Thatcherite heritage of Farage and other senior figures. A key moment in the election was Farage’s unilateral disassociation from his party’s last general election manifesto, which included right-wing policies such as a flat-rate income tax, vouchers for private schools and private healthcare and cutting two million public sector jobs, which would be toxic to many working-class voters. Labour insiders have been critical of their leadership for failing to take UKIP on directly, instead focusing on the Lib Dems, whose level of support could hardly sink much lower.
However, just because UKIP have broadened their support to the north, this does not mean that they are now as much of a threat to Labour as they are to the Conservatives. Broadly what is happening is UKIP are replacing the Tories and Lib Dems as the opposition to Labour in its heartlands. In Labour strongholds, this is unlikely to affect either party’s chances. The Conservatives will lose votes where they had no chance of picking up a seat, while barring by-elections, Labour are unlikely to lose any safe seats. Similarly, UKIP’s stronger base in the South (excluding London) is unlikely to damage the Conservatives, except perhaps in Lib Dem held seats in the South West where leakage to UKIP might hinder Tory gains.
The picture is more interesting in Labour-Conservative marginals. UKIP will have the best chance of winning seats, because the threshold for winning will be much lower with a three party split. If UKIP continues to poll well in the next 12 months, we can expect them to squeeze into a few seats with low shares of the vote. In other marginals, the source of UKIP votes really does matter. If UKIP poll 15-25% in marginals where they are targeting resources because they know the victory threshold is lower, and far more of those votes come from the Conservatives than Labour, Labour will win more of those crucial marginals than the Conservatives. Indeed, Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll of the marginals suggests a 6.5% swing from Labour to the Conservatives, enough to give them a comfortable majority.
Therefore the logic of the impact on the main parties is somewhat twisted. Yes, UKIP have broadened their support from rural voters in the south of England to the north and to working-class voters. But these voters were not Labour voters in 2010. They may have been fifteen, twenty or thirty years ago. They also may very well be the voters Labour needs to win back to get back to 1997 levels of support and dominate British politics in the way that the Conservative party dominated the twentieth century. But it is simply not true to say that UKIP hurts all the main parties equally. High levels of support for UKIP will help Ed Miliband to become Prime Minister.
What if the earthquake is followed by a tsunami?
While no one is seriously suggesting that Sunday’s European Election results will be repeated in 2015, it’s fun to speculate anyway. I haven’t seen anyone produce a proper projection based on the votes in each constituency, but on a uniform national swing courtesy of electoral calculus, the result would be as follows:
Labour 25.4% 298 seats
Conservative 23.9% 230 seats
UKIP 27.49% 69 seats
Liberal Democrats 6.87% 24 seats
As well as bringing home the unfairness of First Past the Post to UKIP voters (most of whom I’m sure voted no to AV), this would leave Labour short of a majority, but much more able to form a government (albeit an unstable one) with the support of the Lib Dems. Even a Conservative-UKIP agreement would leave them well short of a majority.
Why haven’t the attacks worked?
Farage has made much of media attacks on his party, notably the trawling of the social media accounts of council candidates for racist and homophobic comments (Private Eye has linked this campaign back to Tory HQ). Yet this, as well as Farage’s disastrous LBC interview has done nothing to dent his support. This confounds expectations, yet the explanation is rather simple. The swing voters of 2014 are not the swing voters of the 1990s, or at least they are not swinging for the same reasons. Warning: the next section contains some sweeping demographic generalisations.
In 1997, Blair was able to appeal to the aspirations of middle-class people who had benefited from the Thatcher years through, as Mandelson puts it, a combination of social and economic liberalism. These voters were the target of Cameron’s charm offensive in 2007-9: hugging a hoody, embracing the challenge on climate change, apologising for Section 28. If this was the swing vote of today – middle-class liberals who opposed a return to old-Labour economic policies but disliked the backwardness of many Conservatives – UKIP would be nowhere. Swing voters are now coming from almost the opposite end of the political spectrum, responding to economic and social populism. They see both parties as distant elites who don’t listen. They don’t trust Labour on immigration, but they are still wary of the Conservatives’ promises to protect the NHS and make the recovery work for them. They won’t be won over by action on climate change or equal marriage, and politically incorrect comments and accusations of xenophobia won’t scare them away.
You can’t out-kipp the Kippers
UKIP’s raison d’être was always to exert enough pressure on the established parties to force their hand on an in-out referendum they felt sure they would win. In this sense, UKIP’s goals have largely been achieved. The Conservatives have promised a referendum by 2017, with Labour and the Lib Dems committed to the European Union Act 2011 guaranteeing a referendum on any further transfer of power to Brussels.
Yet overtures to UKIP, particularly from the Conservatives, haven’t worked at all. Lynton Crosby’s campaign focus should be perfect for the new swing vote, but it is failing to make an impact. This partly goes back to the idea of UKIP simply as a protest vote, as well as that Cameron is bound by the Lib Dems from more UKIP-friendly policies. Yet UKIP only have one policy: a referendum on Europe, and the Tories have stolen it. Even UKIP’s immigration policy, the supposed source of much support, is unclear.
Simply put, the more salient Europe becomes, the better UKIP will do. It’s their issue area, just as the NHS has traditionally been Labour’s and crime traditionally the Conservatives’. This puts the other parties at a dilemma. Do they ignore Europe, and make the election about jobs or public services? The risk of such a strategy is great, with the possibility of a flood to UKIP from voters who feel no one else is listening to their concerns. Both strategies were tried this year. Clegg went all out on Europe, and had a disastrous night, while Labour (and the Greens) talked about everything but Europe, and made reasonable gains.
Most likely a balance needs to be struck between these extremes. “Taking the fight to UKIP”, as many Labour MPs are calling for, can be done by pointing out extreme domestic policies they once held, or the fact that they have been replaced with nothing. However, making the General Election about Europe, either by joining the Lib Dems with a strong “in” message or by cosying up to UKIP voters with a promise of a referendum, or an earlier referendum as some Tories are calling for, will do more harm than good for either party.
No time to panic
We will not see a repeat of Sunday in a year’s time. For all the talk of UKIP’s surge in the local elections, their projected vote share was down significantly on 2013, and this in a European election year, when one would think their supporters would be more motivated than usual to turn out. In fact, UKIP won just 3.9% of council seats – slightly more if you only consider those in which they stood – but still lower than the BNP won in 2009, who have been all but wiped out since. This demonstrates that the public are more than capable of using their vote for different effects in different elections.
Here the conventional wisdom is correct: the public do like to punish governing parties in “mid-term” elections. UKIP provide an “anti-establishment” voice which appeals to many disenchanted voters at a time when the Lib Dems, the traditional anti-establishment party, are in government. UKIP will not collapse between now and the General Election, but talk of them holding the balance of power is premature.
Yes, parties do need to come up with a UKIP strategy. The Conservatives rightly fear that UKIP could deprive them of a majority by handing victory to Labour and the Lib Dems in crucial marginals. Labour’s Lib Dem squeeze strategy might, if we continue to see a “voteless recovery”, just see them emerge as the largest party on 34% or so of the vote, but it would hardly be a mandate to govern, and we could be in for a tricky five-year parliament.
However, neither Labour nor the Conservatives will win in 2015 with UKIP-lite policies. Wooing UKIP voters does involve understanding who they are and what they care about, but that doesn’t mean the election has to be fought on the issue of Europe (or indeed immigration). Making the election about other important issues, whether economic recovery (if you are the Conservatives) or living standards and ensuring everyone feels the benefits of growth (if you are Labour) is not ignoring the threat from UKIP. It is the only way to win back their votes.
Charlie Cadywould is a former member of the PLMR team. Charlie is now studying for an MSc in Public Policy at University College London. He has a strong interest in voting behaviour and public opinion, and his academic focuses include business regulation and energy policy.”
The article was first published in the Huffington Post