Both a Ukip collapse or revival could spell danger for Labour, writes Matthew Goodwin
At the 2016 referendum on the European Union, Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence party achieved all they had ever wanted. After 23 years of campaigning, much of it spent in the electoral backwaters, the self-anointed ‘People’s Army’ helped to force a nationwide referendum on EU membership and then encourage a vote to leave. The party that David Cameron had once labelled as being full of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ had thus played a central role in his downfall. In the shadow of the result Farage resigned, declaring that having got his country back he now wanted his life back. As a consequence, Ukip now stands at a crossroads with its future looking more uncertain than ever. In a post-referendum Britain is there still room for a party like Ukip? Where might the party go next, and what might it mean for Labour?
To make sense of this question we need to return to the past. Though they are often ignored, the roots of Ukip’s revolt and the vote for Brexit are entwined with deeper currents in British politics. Between 2010 and 2015 Farage and his party assumed a central role in mobilising underlying and growing divides between different social groups that had been building since the 1960s. In short, these divides were between social groups that had the skills, education and flexibility to adapt and prosper amid rapid social and economic change and those that did not. This is partly a story about skills and opportunity, with the affluent socially mobile middle classes and younger graduates better able to navigate an increasingly competitive environment. But it is equally a story about values, as these two groups have thought in fundamentally different ways about the world around them. The old left-right distinction is less helpful to explaining the new landscape than a distinction between liberals and authoritarians, those who feel at ease with cultural and social change and those who feel profoundly under threat from all that this brings.
But our main political parties also responded poorly to this cleavage, first failing to identify its emergence and then underestimating its political potency. In different ways both the Labour party and Conservatives assumed wrongly that sections of their traditionally loyal electorate would blindly follow them into the new era. In this respect some, like Geoffrey Evans at the University of Oxford, argued that New Labour and Tony Blair were the unintentional architects of the vote for Brexit. After introducing a political vocabulary that stripped out working-class interest and pushing ahead with free movement, Blair also embraced a professionalisation of politics that carried little resonance in traditionally blue-collar Labour-voting communities. Intensely held concerns over belonging and identity were boiled down to old arguments about economic redistribution or dismissed away as the final cry of an older generation of working-class Britons that would soon slip over the horizon. Along the way New Labour thus planted several seeds that would later grow into powerful drivers of the Brexit vote – the feeling of being economically left behind by a prosperous middle class that was concentrated in London and the south-east, culturally cut adrift from the same social groups that now dominate the media and political classes and an intense sense of loss as local ways of life and belonging made way for a new era of hyper-diversity. ‘This is change’, said the agents of New Labour. ‘Get on with it’. With this in mind it was revealing, as we showed in Revolt on the Right, that the percentage of working-class Britons who felt that the government no longer represented them reached its zenith under Blair and a Labour government.
Underneath the surface there was quietly emerging a new alliance of social conservatives on the right and blue-collar workers on the left who shared a very different outlook on the issues of Europe, immigration and concerns over national identity that were now cutting across the traditional divide between left and right. While Blair lost his gamble that he could carry the working classes with him, as reflected in their rising levels of political abstention, Cameron also fractured his own base with his calls to modernise Conservatism and champion the things that social conservatives saw as a direct challenge to their way of life. The stage was thus set for a new revolt.
Though Labour had been repeatedly warned about the threat from Ukip, many refused to listen
Farage was one of the first to recognise the new coalition and began to appeal directly to the left behind. The connection was quick and strong. Though Labour had been repeatedly warned about the threat from Ukip, many refused to listen. It was reflected in the numbers. At local elections held between 2010 and 2014 Labour advanced slowest in areas where Ukip polled strongest. When Labour did not have to compete with Ukip its share of the vote increased by an average of nine points but this slumped to only one point when it was faced with its new rival. At the 2014 European parliament elections Labour, the main party of opposition, was forced into an embarrassing second place as the thinly resourced Ukip won the contest outright, often polling its strongest support in Labour-run authorities. Ukip finished ahead of Labour in one out of every three Labour-run authorities.
The 2014 European parliament election put the writing on the wall. It was the first time that the main party of opposition had failed to win the contest since Neil Kinnock and Labour failed to defeat Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives in 1984. Like Kinnock, Ed Miliband and his team would go on to experience defeat at the following general election that also saw Ukip solidify its presence in Labour areas. Frustratingly for many, Miliband and his team also appeared to fuel the revolt, notably at a parliamentary by-election in Rochester and Strood in November 2014 when, instead of making a symbolic stand against Ukip, Labour’s desire to hurt the Conservatives led it to fail to invest in its talented local candidate, Naushabah Khan. What could have been an embarrassing loss for Farage turned into a victory that pushed him on. By the time of the 2015 general election those who had argued that Ukip was only a problem for Cameron woke to find that while Farage and his party had averaged nearly 14 per cent nationally they had averaged 19 per cent in safe Labour seats. Ukip was also now entrenched as the second party in 120 seats, 44 of which were held by Labour.
For all of these reasons, by the time that Britain entered the 2016 referendum campaign the die had been cast. Public support for Brexit was a majority across an estimated 421 of the 574 seats in England and Wales, including 60 per cent of Labour-held seats. Some of the more striking examples of Labour seats where more than two-thirds of voters backed Brexit included Stoke-on-Trent North, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Ashfield, Walsall North and Doncaster North, all areas where Farage had been cultivating support since 2010. There are many more examples of Labour seats where Brexit not only commanded majority support but had a strong lead, from Bolsover to Dudley North, from Great Grimsby to Dagenham and Rainham, from Rotherham to Mansfield. Meanwhile, among all voters, Jeremy Corbyn was quickly on his way to becoming the most unpopular leader of the Labour party in its entire history.
The only silver lining for Labour was that in the shadow of the referendum result Farage decided to resign, which in turn brought unresolved tensions between his loyalists and critics out into the open. Long-held personality disputes in Ukip bubbled to the surface and were reflected in its ruling body, the National Executive Committee, which deciding to block the favourite to succeed Farage, Steven Woolfe, from standing in the contest after he failed to submit his nomination papers in time. At the roots of this infighting was not disagreement over policy or strategy but a conflict between those loyal to Farage and those like Douglas Carswell, Suzanne Evans and Neil Hamilton who want to moderate Ukip’s tone and push it away from the nativist style of politics that dominated the Farage era. At the time of writing, Farage seemed intent on securing his legacy within the party, dismissing the NEC as ‘amateurs’ and encouraging branches to push for an extraordinary meeting to revise the party’s constitution and, potentially, reset the entire leadership contest.
Whatever the outcome of the internal wrangling there remains space for Ukip, or a party like Ukip, though it will be dependent upon the external environment like never before. This space is reflected in the results of my analysis of the referendum vote (with Oliver Heath). It reveals how support for Brexit was strongest in local authority areas where there are substantial numbers of people who do not have qualifications, older populations and which over the past 10 years had experienced a sudden increase in EU migration. For instance, 15 of the 20 authorities with the lowest levels of education voted for Brexit while every one of the 20 most educated voted to remain. Similarly, of the 20 youngest authorities 16 voted to remain while of the 20 oldest authorities 19 voted for Brexit.
The dynamics of the Brexit vote are thus very similar to support for Ukip, which from 2010 onward had been cultivating left behind areas in Britain. Rather than trace the vote for Brexit to a dismal ‘Remain’ campaign, or to a lacklustre campaign by Corbyn, it is more accurate to view the result as giving full expression to those deeper divides in Britain that have cut across social class, generational and educational lines and which look distinctly unlikely to be resolved in the near future. If Ukip, or a party like Ukip, wants a future in British politics then it can have one – it is a future that would entail sinking roots in working-class communities where concerns over culture and belonging matter as much as concerns over economic inequality, a cluster of concerns that Corbyn and his team appear ill-equipped to resolve. It would also entail toning down free market economics in favour of economic protectionism, much like Marine Le Pen and the Danish People’s party have done.
But more specifically there are three possible futures for Ukip and each carries implications for Labour – the Eurosceptic party can reform, rebrand or resign. A reformed Ukip would see Farageists or a new leader such as Diane James push ahead with an internal reshuffle that would dilute the power of the unpopular NEC, delegate more influence down to the rank and file and broaden out the party’s offer to voters. There is precedent. In the 1970s, for instance, the Scandinavian Progress parties began life as anti-tax revolts but soon widened their agenda to include populist attacks on big business, immigration and politicians, and advocate radical social policy. Down this road Ukip would continue to contest elections, in the short term hoping for gains at the 2017 local elections that cover Labour-held councils in Wales and Conservative county councils in places where Ukip has polled well in the past, like Buckinghamshire and Kent. In these places Ukip will get a sense of its future potential by appealing to social conservatives and working-class voters who worry about the new government’s commitment to a reform of free movement and delivering Brexit.
There are three possible futures for Ukip and each carries implications for Labour – the Eurosceptic party can reform, rebrand or resign
Yet while Ukip has brand recognition the party would need to overcome some formidable internal obstacles – a lack of unity among senior officials, an absence of money and the fact that almost all of those who have experience of running election campaigns have vacated the central office with Farage. Anybody who has ever worked in a political party will tell you that these are not insignificant problems. There is also a specific challenge around members. While some Ukippers had hoped that the referendum would deliver an ‘SNP moment’, drawing in thousands of new members and donors, in the end only around two thousand people joined the party throughout the referendum. This is hardly the sign of a blossoming revolt. That a populist party campaigning for Brexit was unable to benefit more fully in a referendum year should ring alarm bells.
This brings us to the second possible future for Ukip – a rebrand. It is revealing that some of those who are closest to the party, such as its influential multimillionaire donor Arron Banks, have publicly voiced their view that the Ukip vessel may have reached its limit. Banks has drawn inspiration from movements and campaigns elsewhere, recently hiring referendum experts from the United States to bolster his Leave.EU network and studying the Italian Five Star movement which has delegated much of its power and important decisions to the grassroots. Given the current turmoil in Ukip and lack of experience among mainly elderly and Conservative leaning officials, Banks may be tempted to start from scratch, effectively turning his existing network into a new movement and encouraging Farage to give Ukip activists the nod to defect en masse. Banks alone would remedy Ukip’s internal problems with money and inexperience, though whether his controversial and polarising style would enable him to build a unified team remains to be seen.
The third possible future for Ukip could be resignation, a gradual deterioration and then final end to the People’s Army. Some in Labour would cheer such an outcome, believing that Ukip’s collapse would remove the threat in northern Labour heartlands. But this conclusion would be wrong. It could well be argued that Ukip’s actual threat in northern England has been overstated by some in Labour. Even where the radical right party is second to Labour it is often trailing Labour members of parliament by 20-30 points. Such seats are unlikely to fall imminently. But should Ukip collapse then what happens in territory elsewhere? This is where things begin to look incredibly bleak for Labour.
Should Ukip disintegrate or collapse, and no breakaway party emerges, more of its voters will drift back to the Conservatives than to Labour. Indeed, this is clear in the evidence. At the 2014 European parliament elections, for instance, one in every two Ukip voters had previously voted Conservative. Throw in Theresa May’s stance on Brexit, her support for grammar schools and the prospect of immigration reform then it is not implausible to suggest that she could win back at least half of the Ukip vote, particularly at a general election where the alternative is Corbyn and a Labour movement that looks in disarray. On all of the issues that matter the most to voters – the economy, Brexit and immigration – the Conservatives have a considerable lead over Labour, and, while over 50 per cent of voters feel that May would make the best prime minister, less than 20 per cent of voters feel the same way about Corbyn. Alongside the absence of a recovery for Labour in Scotland and renewed pressure in Wales, it does not take an expert to see where this is heading.
Were this to happen then dozens of Labour seats would potentially fall to Conservative challengers at the next general election. One illustrative example is Wirral West, which at the 2015 general election was captured from the Conservatives by Labour MP Margaret Greenwood. But in this seat, like others, Labour has a wafer-thin majority of only 417 votes while Ukip took 3,000 votes. Assuming the Ukip vote collapses and May wins many of these voters over, it would not take much for these seats to fall. Or look at City of Chester, also a Conservative seat until 2015 when the Labour MP Chris Matheson captured the seat with a majority of just 93 votes while Ukip polled over 4,000 votes. These are the kinds of seats that would fall back to the Conservatives should Ukip suffer a major collapse, and there are many more – constituencies like Wrexham, Ilford North, Ealing Central and Acton, North-east Derbyshire, Barrow and Furness, Enfield North, Brentford and Isleworth, Halifax, Dewsbury, Dudley North and Wolverhampton South-west, alongside others.
Clearly, the dynamics of a Ukip collapse would play out differently from one seat to the next, but overall it is the Conservative party that would be the main beneficiary. Alternatively, Ukip hangs together and sustains its pressure on Labour, hampering the left’s recovery in middle England and continuing to whittle down those majorities in northern England. Neither outcome is a positive one for Labour. It is not yet clear which of the three roads Ukip will take, but what is evident is that the seeds of a new revolt are just as visible as warning signs that at the next general election Labour could experience a crushing and perhaps unprecedented defeat. The possible scale of this defeat was recently hinted at in a forecast of the next general election by the website Electoral Calculus that takes into account current polling and possible boundary changes. While forecasts should always be treated with caution it puts May and the Conservative party on 345 seats and Labour on just 182 – an outcome that could push the Labour movement firmly into the electoral wilderness.
Ukip if they want to
Who managed to get their candidate papers in on time?
Phillip Broughton was the Ukip candidate in Hartlepool at the 2015 general election where he finished second to Labour with 28 per cent of the vote. Broughton, who is unlikely to win, is pitching himself as the young, working-class and northern face of the party. He has said that he would prioritise the NHS and steer clear of the ‘dog-whistle politics’ that is being advocated by his rivals. Ukip, he argues, needs to be a broad-based political party rather than a protest movement.
Lisa Duffy is a generally unknown local councillor on Huntingdonshire district council who has also served as chief of staff for Ukip’s MEP and former communications director Patrick O’Flynn. Duffy, who is being actively supported by O’Flynn and Suzanne Evans, is seen within the party as a grassroots campaigner who played a significant role in developing Ukip’s local election campaigns and helping secure the victories of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless at the 2014 parliamentary by-elections. Though some claim that Duffy is a moderate voice who can counter the Farageists, she has since called for the banning of Islamic dress, Muslim-only schools and sharia law.
Bill Etheridge is a Ukip MEP from the West Midlands who at the 2015 general election attempted unsuccessfully to unseat Ian Austin in Dudley North (he finished third with 24 per cent of the vote). Etheridge has a support base in the Midlands although his policies are something of a mixed bag. A supporter of gay marriage, Etheridge is also calling for a return of the death penalty and a ban on the burqa. He is perhaps best known to voters for attracting media attention when he appeared to praise the oratory of Adolf Hitler.
Liz Jones is a largely unknown member of Ukip’s National Executive Committee who has also been active in Lambeth. Jones has been criticised during the leadership election for failing to attend hustings outside of London and, like several other candidates, is a relative outsider.
Diane James is an MEP for the south-east region and also the party’s deputy chair. She is the firm favourite to win the contest, at least as far as the betting markets are concerned. Recruited personally by Farage, James is perhaps best known for her strong result at the 2013 parliamentary Eastleigh by-election, where she finished second with almost 28 per cent of the vote. Inside the party James is seen as a competent if not especially charismatic figure who could potentially unite the warring factions within Ukip. James could well appoint a northern figure as her deputy.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent, senior visiting fellow at Chatham House and co-author of Revolt on the Right
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