The European elections saw several firsts. UKIP, a party without representation in Westminster, topped the poll of a national election, returning MEPs from every region of Great Britain. The Conservatives polled third for the first time in their 300-year history. Labour, one year out from a general election, finished only narrowly ahead of the Conservatives with only 16 Liberal Democrat votes in the South East preventing the Tories tying them on MEPs. And the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg’s ‘Party of IN’, all but disappeared, writes Henry Hill.
Following our pre-election breakfast briefing, ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about UKIP but were afraid to ask,’ Dr Matthew Goodwin re-joined British Future, alongside University of Nottingham colleague Caitlin Milazzo and LSE London director Tony Travers, to pick through the rubble of the UKIP earthquake and ask: where does the ‘people’s army’ go from here? What impact will this have on British politics? And how can the other parties respond to contain the UKIP threat, if at all?
Speaking first, Travers mooted that in the short to medium term the rise of the fourth party might actually boost the two-party system. The theory runs that as the third party support fragments, first-past-the-post seats, both on local councils and for Westminster, will become winnable on lower shares of the vote. This would lower the barrier to entry for parties where they had no prospect of winning 40+ percent, with the Tories and Labour being the main beneficiaries.
Goodwin, speaking next, was keen to emphasise that his was not a short-term prediction. Of his list of seats where UKIP performed best in the local and European elections last week the top 20 were all Conservative marginals, a finding which mirrored those of Lord Ashcroft’s recent mega-poll of Tory and Labour marginal seats.
However, he did outline the early signs that the UKIP threat to Labour was materialising: that UKIP’s European vote had grown by much more than the Tories had fallen back; and that 2012-13 was the first political period where UKIP took more votes off Labour than the Conservatives. This put Labour in a bind, as a questioner pointed out, between appealing to the well-educated, liberal vote that did them so well in London, and defending their core vote from UKIP in the northern metropolitan centres.
UKIP’s core aim, according to Goodwin, was not to win Labour seats in 2015 but to supplant the Liberal Democrats as the official opposition to Labour in northern local government by 2020 – for example in Rotherham, where it won 10 seats and came second in all the rest. In the short term they have announced a targeted seat strategy of 20-30 seats, which Goodwin believes means about 10-12 genuine targets. Most of these will be Conservative-held, although he believes that Labour’s Great Grimsby is actually UKIP’s number one target seat, even in 2015.
Finally, Milazzo presented her findings on the durability of the UKIP vote. A critical question for Farage, highlighted in British Future’s report “The Rise and Rise of the Outsider Election”, is how much of his European vote he can retain when the focus shifts from Europe to who will be prime minister.
In recent years UKIP have tended to retain about a third of their vote which, when combined with the electorate doubling in size between the Euros and a general election, sees their vote share slashed to about a sixth when the public is choosing who will govern Britain. Since the 15 million extra voters at a general election, who weren’t motivated to vote in the Euros, are unlikely to be attracted to UKIP, vote retention is key to UKIP’s 2015 performance.
Milazzo showed that Farage has made some progress: according to the British Election Study, 61 per cent of those voters who backed UKIP last week say they will stick with them in a general election (with another 23 per cent saying they will migrate to the Conservatives). In terms of raw numbers this could translate into six or seven per cent of the vote.
She also examined the party’s different retention rates amongst various demographics, for example finding that whilst men are more likely to vote UKIP than women (26 to 20%), those women UKIP do manage to win over are more likely to stick with the party at a general election (69 against 60%). Other groups showed large variations in likelihood to vote UKIP (for example only 15% of 18-35s vs 30% of over-55s), but despite this pensioners are not statistically more likely to remain loyal to UKIP than the norm, despite being more open to considering them.
Perhaps most important was the difference between people who rated immigration the most important political issue for Britain and those who are focused on the economy: those who put the economy first are much less likely to vote UKIP and far more likely to switch. This led Goodwin to recommend that the Tories focus on the economy, where they are strong, rather than raising the salience of immigration by focusing on Farage’s strongest subject.
British Future director Sunder Katwala closed the presentations, highlighting some salient features from our ‘Outsider Election’ report. He reminded the audience that European elections are not a good guide to general election performance, not least because they have a much smaller, older, whiter and more Eurosceptic electorate. Past performance suggests that UKIP will fall back to 5-10% of the vote in 2015, depending on how much of his Euro vote Farage can retain.
He also explained British Future’s breakdown of UKIP support into three roughly equal groups: “Bluekip”, political migrants who plan to vote for another party in 2015, mainly the Tories; “Whokip?” who are undecided on their 2015 voting intention, and “Effyoukip”, committed UKIP supporters who want to close the borders and can’t be wooed by the major parties without abandoning the mainstream. Katwala argued that parties need to work out which sections of UKIP’s support they can reach, and not play into Farage’s hands by pitching to the unpersuadables.
After this the floor was opened to questions. These covered a broad range of topics, with some questioners asking how Labour could respond best to UKIP’s threat to their core vote. Sadly for Ed Miliband none of the panel had a magic bullet, but all felt that Labour had made itself a false choice between ‘turning up the volume’ on immigration and avoiding the issue, neither of which was a useful approach.