The rise of UKIP to nine per cent and third place in the opinion polls ahead of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls for the first time this week took me by surprise.
Like most people on the left I spend more time thinking about my own party’s problems and how to solve them than studying the right, so I was so preoccupied by Respect’s surprise win in Bradford that I had missed what was going on with UKIP.
They are in some respects part of the same phenomenon. We have had a growing splintering of the party system in the UK for many decades as old class alignments to Labour and the Tories have broken down due to social change. This has been accelerated at non-Westminster elections by proportional election systems that have meant minor parties have stopped being a ‘wasted vote’. Now we have a situation where the previous third-party repository of protest votes for disillusioned major party supporters, the Lib Dems, have ceased to be available in this role as they are part of the government that people are disillusioned by! So other vehicles for protest become more popular – I believe Bradford West would have been a Lib Dem target, not a Respect one, in a by-election before 2010, given that the Lib Dems took Bradford East in that general election.
However, Labour’s minor party threats are not on the same scale as UKIP. They are geographically or demographically limited in their appeal. The SNP only threaten in Scotland. Plaid Cymru only in Wales. Respect only in the limited number of seats with a very large Muslim population (the three seats with the most Muslim voters are the three where Respect has seriously challenged Labour – Bradford West, Bethnal Green & Bow, Birmingham Hall Green) – there are only 17 constituencies with a Muslim vote above 15 per cent. The Greens only in Guardianista heartlands like Brighton, Norwich and Oxford.
None of these left threats to Labour polls anywhere near the UKIP nine per cent. Ironically, they have more potential to take seats as their vote is concentrated.
But they do not, outside Scotland, present an existential threat to Labour’s hegemony on the centre-left. And it is not even clear how much of their support comes straight off Labour, and how much from the Lib Dems. In the case of Bradford West, Respect hoovered up Tory, Lib Dem and previously non-voting people as well as ex-Labour voters.
In contrast, the UKIP vote seems overwhelming to come from disillusioned Tory voters, especially their middle-class, elderly, high-turnout core vote.
I don’t think UKIP’s vote is concentrated enough to win any seats in a general election. But it could cost the Tories a number of seats by reducing their vote in marginals in exactly the same way that the Referendum party contributed to the loss of some Tory seats to Labour in 1997, for example taking 4923 votes in Harwich, which Labour only won by 1,216. If I was the Tories I would also be worried about the possibility of a UKIP by-election win if a seat came up on the south coast with lots of pensioners.
UKIP’s rise shows that the Tories are finally beginning to pay a price for being in government, and more specifically being in coalition government. The Lib Dems have been paying that price ever since they upset their leftwing support by going into a Tory-led coalition. About half their support switched to Labour in 2010 and has stayed with us.
Only at the start of the year, the Tories were level-pegging with Labour on 40 per cent. Now they have lost one quarter of that support, mainly to UKIP, and are up to 11 per cent behind.
Most of this Tory disillusion must be due to the political errors in the budget, the only major political event this year. The ‘Granny Tax’ hits the older demographic who most back UKIP, giving UKIP 17 per cent support among pensioners.
So UKIP has become more than a single-issue anti-EU party and instead a temporary repository for rightwingers to protest against Cameron on other issues too.
He can’t appease the hardcore anti-EU section of UKIP’s support because their demand – UK departure from the EU– is irreconcilable with political and economic reality. Even less extreme Euroscepticism is difficult to deliver on in practice because it would be unacceptable to Cameron’s Lib Dem coalition partners, so Cameron’s pre-election anti-EU rhetoric looks like cynical hot air.
If some of UKIP’s new support sticks with it – and clearly not all of it will – it’s most important impact is to move the winning post for Labour for the 2015 general election by handicapping our main opponent. Until now, it was generally accepted that about 40 per cent was the score needed to win in what looked like reverting to a near-two party system. With an additional rightwing ‘half party’ in the field that winning post could be more like 35 per cent, the kind of score we won with in 2005.
If UKIP entrenches its position in years to come by building a local government base (it scores well in council by-elections), the combination of this and the weakening of the Lib Dems could leave Britain with a party system that looks like the traditional Nordic model: a strong, united social democratic party on about 40 per cent and a divided right wing on 10 per cent-30 per cent-10 per cent.
Ironically, although disillusioned with the party system, the electorate rejected conclusively the AV referendum which might have meant pluralism in voting patterns was better reflected in election results. So if Labour can see off its leftwing splinters while the Tories fail to see off the splinters to their right, first-past-the-post will deliver rich electoral rewards.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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