Is UKIP Labour’s phantom menace?

UKIP's existential threat to Labour has become accepted wisdom across the political spectrum, but the data tells a quite different story.

Luke Cooper
13 December 2016
 Flickr/European Parliament. Some rights reserved.

The election of Paul Nuttall as leader of UKIP has been described as a "game changer" for Labour. Image: Flickr/European Parliament. Some rights reserved.It has become an accepted wisdom in much of the Labour Party — from the right to the left — that UKIP represents an existential threat to the party’s heartland vote in those parts of the north of England that voted Leave. Chuka Umunna told the Times that the party had "no safe seats", while a ‘senior Corbyn ally’ was also cited in the same story. Frank Field described the election of Paul Nuttall as a "game changer" for Labour. And Stephen Kinnock spoke in similar terms of how Labour’s "obsession" with diversity would hit its electoral prospects in its heartland northern areas.  

The fact that this risks becoming common sense across the right and left of the Labour Party affirms the adage that ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. While the threat to Labour’s support from UKIP should not be underestimated it has to be based on a credible analysis of the evidence to hand. 

So are there credible reasons for thinking UKIP represent a threat to Labour’s existing electoral coalition? As we survey some of the evidence it becomes clear that this threat is something of a ‘phantom menace’. Those promoting this argument have a particular agenda, which, if the party were to follow it, would be ruinous.  

No prizes for second place  

Let’s start by looking at the party’s breakthrough general election in 2015. UKIP heralded these results as the first step in their ‘2020 strategy’ where they build on the second places they won in 2015 to mount competitive local campaigns next time. 

UKIP did do well in winning a number of second places. They came second in a total of 120 seats. But a significant number of these (75) were Tory and only 44 were Labour held. UKIP also tended to come a distant second. In the vast majority of cases they require a very significant swing to win seats. According to Steven Ayres the average majority of a winning candidate in the general election was 11,480. But, for UKIP, in more than 80 per cent of its second place seats (100 out of 120) the winning candidate far exceeded the national average to win by a landslide:  

 Steven Ayres, “UKIP came second in 120 constituencies in 2015. Does this point to more seats in 2020?”

Source: Steven Ayres, “UKIP came second in 120 constituencies in 2015. Does this point to more seats in 2020?” LSE British Politics and Policy

If we focus in on the seats where UKIP came second to Labour then we can see that there are only two, Hartlepool (3,024) and Dagenham and Rainham (4,980), where the majority is less than 5,000 and only nine are below the 10,000 mark. Labour’s majority over UKIP exceeds the national average in 27 of the 44 constituencies. Peter Hoskin at ConservativeHome has collated this general election data and added in the result from the 2015 Oldham West by-election. Here are his findings:  

 Peter Hoskin, ‘UKIP, the party of the distant second’

Source: Peter Hoskin, ‘UKIP, the party of the distant second’

Admittedly, in a further post, Hoskin did show that on average UKIP are even further behind in Conservative seats. However, they are closer in Thanet South (2,812) than they are in Labour held Hartlepool and in Boston and Skegness (4,336) than in Labour’s Dagenham and Rainham. To put this in context, out of the 650 seats in the Westminster parliament there are 79 seats that are ‘more marginal’ than Hartlepool and 144 ‘more marginal’ than Dagenham and Rainham. If you drill down to the current Labour holds there are 36 seats that are more vulnerable than Hartlepool and 58 seats that are more vulnerable than Dagenham and Rainham. In other words, Labour would have to suffer a total electoral collapse for UKIP to take these seats.   

The data is pretty clear, then, that for UKIP’s 2020 strategy to work they would require significant swings away from both Tories and Labour. Even then the gruel is likely to be very thin. With the party competitive in only a handful of seats they are left reliant upon a collapse of the Tories or Labour on a similar scale to the Lib Dems in 2015 (or Scottish Labour in the same year) to make even modest electoral gains. 

Where do UKIP voters come from? 

Despite being talked about as a threat to Labour for many years by far and away the largest segment of UKIP support comes from former Conservative voters. While UKIP have started to increase their electoral appeal to Labour voters, they have done so from a very modest base. In spring 2014, YouGov showed that just 11 per cent of UKIP supporters voted for the Labour Party in the 2010 election. By the end of 2014 the same pollsters were talking of a larger proportion of former Labour voters with as many as 23 per cent of UKIP supporters having voted for the Labour Party in 2010. This was still dwarfed, however, by the 48 per cent of former-Tory-now-UKIP voters.   

Those who want a hardline on immigration will always vote for the ‘real thing’, not a party attempting to be all things to all groups of the electorate

According to Electoral Calculus at the 2015 general election, UKIP voters who migrated from another party were four times more likely to have voted Tory in 2010 than they were to have voted Labour. Undoubtedly, the right-populist character of UKIP has allowed it to bring together disparate groups of the electorate, which poses challenges for progressives, but this should not distract attention from the headache they represent for the Tories, especially in the context of the Brexit negotiations.    

Labour’s MPs who talk about the UKIP threat almost universally want the party to soft peddle UKIP-esque arguments on immigration. But as Diane Abbott has shown, the view that this accords with Labour’s electoral interests is based on an outdated conception of the party’s supporters. Labour voters don’t tend to be socially conservative, but the opposite: socially liberal and progressive. This means the party has far more to lose than gain if it makes the disastrous calculation to steal UKIP’s clothes. Those who want a hardline on immigration will always vote for the ‘real thing’, not a party attempting to be all things to all groups of the electorate.  

How are UKIP doing? 

If anything UKIP have lost support since the EU referendum, which is hardly surprising when you consider the party’s travails. They have been wracked by internal crises, including the election-cum-resignation of Diane James and the calamitous exit of Steven Woolfe. They threatened to bring 100,000 supporters onto the streets, only to then cancel for fear of being embarrassed by the extreme-right character of parts of their own supporter base. But, most of all, UKIP have the strategic problem that Theresa May has stolen their clothes. Not only are they losing party members back to the Tories, reversing the historic trend, but voters are looking inclined to swing too.    

At least at the moment the focus on UKIP badly misdiagnoses the nature of the challenge facing Labour. It comes not from the far right party, but May’s Tories. Judging by the post referendum polling the strategy of stealing UKIP’s clothes appears to be working. This is the post-referendum polling for June and July: 

 UK Polling Report.

Opinion poll data for June and July. Source: UK Polling Report.The trend is already becoming clear with UKIP support falling off and Tory support increasing. This period shows an average Tory lead in the opinion polls of seven points. But if we then look at the data for October and November it gets even worse for Labour. The Tory lead shows clear signs of growth and a consolidating lead. 

 UK Polling Report.

Opinion poll data for October and November. Source: UK Polling Report.

This shows an average Tory lead of 13 points over Labour. Whereas in post-referendum June and July Labour polled on average 30 per cent, this falls to 28 per cent in October and November. Meanwhile UKIP fell from 14 per cent in late June and July to 11 per cent in October and November. For the period covered by both tables the Lib Dems and Greens are static with the parties averaging 8% and 4% respectively. There is no getting round the fact that there has been a small swing from Labour to the Tories and a larger swing from UKIP to the Tories since 23 June.

UKIP’s decline actually increases Labour’s woes 

It actually gets worse for Labour if you consider the implications of even a moderate shift from UKIP to the Tories in marginal seats where UKIP are in third place. If we look at the 30 most marginal Tory seats in the country it is grim reading. These are seats that have to be taken by one of the parties of the centre-to-left if there is any chance of a progressive coalition government forming in 2020. There is an overwhelming trend for UKIP to be in third place in these seats. Theresa May will have been shown this data prior to her conference speech and seen in this context her strategy makes perfect sense: ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ by leading a hard Brexit that ends British membership of the single market and with it the free movement of peoples.  

 BBC Election 2015

Source: BBC Election 2015

With UKIP in third place in 26 out of 30 of the party’s most vulnerable seats, the logic of the Tories’ UKIP-isation strategy is electorally obvious: steal their clothes, steal the votes and secure the Conservative position in these key swing seats.  

Of course, there are caveats. UKIP is likely to enjoy a ‘protest vote’ factor, which the Tories could never capture. Labour also has the potential for a ground operation that none of the other parties could rival with its membership having more than doubled since the 2015 general election. It is also possible that May’s position in the opinion polls may well have peaked. Whatever her political intentions, significant ‘structural’ obstacles stand in the way of the kind of Brexit she envisaged at the Conservative party conference. The EU will almost certainly not accept May’s terms, which will leave her with the choice of either reneging on her policy or facing severe economic fallout. Either of these options would be likely to carry significant costs for the Tories at the ballot box.  

How does Brexit change the above? 

This is the point where Remainers like myself take a deep intake of breath. But it makes sense to further cross-reference the above against Chris Hanretty’s estimates for a constituency-by-constituency breakdown of the referendum result (these are only estimates because the votes were collated by local authority, not Westminster constituency. He explains the technical methodology here). These are the results: 

 BBC Election 2015

Source: BBC Election 2015

As we might have expected — given that Hanretty has already shown that 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies voted Leave — we find that 23 of the 30 most vulnerable Tory seats voted Leave. So at first sight this might appear to provide further grounds for May’s strategy. But how these votes play out in electoral terms is still a great unknown. It should be remembered that a significant component — some 42 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling — of 2015 Conservative voters backed Remain. While this was not sufficient to deliver the Remain vote it is a potential hotbed of discontent in the context of May’s UKIP-isation strategy. Unlike the Tories, UKIP are in a much simpler position. Not only did 96 per cent of their voters support Leave they are also not in government and not responsible for the negotiations with the EU. This puts them in poll position to attack any compromise. 

Just as May’s popularity may have peaked, so too might have UKIP’s current difficulties, and this presents problems for the Tories in the battleground constituencies: can they maintain their current support and not leak to UKIP?   

Against narrow electoral calculations 

It always good not to underestimate one’s opponents, but the ‘UKIP threat to Labour narrative’ has been politically orchestrated. It is mobilised by those parts of the party that want a UKIP-lite agenda and are prepared to offer at least some form of support to Theresa May’s desire to end free movement. This would be wrong in principle and represents a disastrous electoral strategy for Labour. In the absence of a formal alliance with the Greens and Lib Dems such a move would almost certainly mean leaking supporters to these parties, something that has already happened in Richmond Park. 

While there is much talk of a Lib Dem fightback, the party has a mountain to climb (see the data here) and as we can see from the table above there are only a handful of super-marginal seats where the Tories are vulnerable to a ‘Richmond Park strategy’: Lewes, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham. The former Lib Dem stronghold of the South West is, in contrast, ‘staunchly Eurosceptic’. While Richmond Park was not nominally a marginal, it was a Lib Dem seat until 2010. Whether the Lib Dems could repeat this feat in ostensibly safe but pro-Remain Tory seats is an open question, but would surely require a steep improvement in their current levels of opinion polling. At the moment, and somewhat ironically given the leadership’s stated opposition to the proposal, Labour would clearly be the major beneficiary of any electoral alliance with the Lib Dem and Greens in the marginal seats of England and Wales.  

For Labour to turn the current polling around, they will need to master the art of appearing both sensible and radical

For Labour to turn the current polling around, my hunch is that they will need to master the art of appearing both sensible and radical. We know that there is wide support, including amongst Conservative voters, for really quite radical economic policies. We also know that the hard Brexit that May is pursuing will be chaotic in the extreme, and potentially have severe economic consequences for the majority.  

There is an obvious opportunity here to chisel away at Conservative Remain voters. A policy of being clearly for remaining a member of the single market (see Nick Dearden’s argument for joining the European Economic Area), but supporting an exit from the European Union has the advantages that it respects the result, appeals to Remain voters, and is the eminently practical, least disruptive option economically.   

It must also be added that at this pivotal moment — of the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen et al — history will not look kindly on those that took their political decisions on the basis of perceived, short-term electoral advantage. I doubt very much the electorate will reward those that approached the EU negotiations — and the related economic fallout — by appearing to ‘hedge their bets’. 

Finally, what is striking about the figures reviewed above is the sheer scale of the disenfranchisement of UKIP voters at the last general election. If there is one issue on which these voters — having experienced so directly the injustices of the first past the post system — could be persuaded to hold their nose and back a party, or coalition of parties, from the progressive side of politics, then maybe electoral reform might just be it. This would be far better than a doomed attempt to out bid them on immigration.   

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