Revolt on the Right

21 November 2014

Where are other Kent seats in the rankings?

Quite a few people from across the political spectrum are asking about our ranking of Ukip-friendly seats from Revolt on the Right, and especially constituencies in Kent. This is clearly not a perfect way of ranking constituencies but it is indicative and -so far- has proven to be a good guide if you look at other constituency-specific polling and survey data. Here is some information to contribute to that debate: 

North Thanet 92
Dover 114
South Thanet 143
Ashford 282
Folkestone & Hythe 185
Faversham and Mid Kent 243
Gillingham and Rainham 262
Rochester and Strood 271
Gravesham 305
Dartford 348
Maindstone and the Weald 371
Tonbridge and Malling 374
Sevenoaks 398
Canterbury 426
Tunbridge Wells 430

18 November 2014

How Ukip is changing its campaigns

This blog originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Access it here.

Much that has been written about Ukip has been wrong. Twelve months ago the consensus was that Nigel Farage and his party could not win a seat in Westminster. Six months ago, when Ukip won the European Parliament elections, many commentators united in the view that Ukip would crash over the summer and pose no major threat in the 2015 general election.

Even now, in the week of the Rochester and Strood by-election (which Ukip looks set to win handsomely), there is a sense that it remains an amateur party and on the campaign trail looks more like Dad’s Army than a ruthlessly organised insurgency.

But like earlier conventional wisdoms, this too is wrong. While researching a book on Ukip’s general election campaign, I have been following the party from one battle to the next. Based on this access, it is clear that the Ukip machine is changing, and quickly.

Nigel Farage and his party used to be shambolic. As recently as the Newark by-election in June (where Ukip came second, by 7,000 votes) its weakness was laid embarrassingly bare. The party lacked manpower and was not nearly active enough. Farage’s claims about changing the face of British politics did not sit easily with research by Lord Ashcroft, which showed how across all areas of the campaign voters experienced less contact with Ukip than with the main parties. They received fewer Ukip leaflets, saw fewer billboards, met fewer activists and received fewer phone calls.

There were other problems, too. Ukip did not have even a basic system for identifying voters. As the main parties employed sophisticated computer software, Ukippers merely scrawled their notes on to pages of A4 and often collected the wrong information. They also followed an “every door policy”, arguing that they should knock at every home in the hope of finding voters who might have fallen off the electoral register. What they ignored was the risk of accidentally mobilising their opposition.

Then there was the message: the heavy focus on abstract macro issues such as immigration and the EU, with no attempt to make these issues relevant to local people. Meanwhile, activists who damaged the party through social media were seldom disciplined. Unsurprisingly, in places like Newark Ukip was easily bulldozed by the established parties.

But things are changing fast. It started in Clacton. That by-election was significant not only because it launched Ukip into Westminster, but also because it taught the party how to campaign. Clacton was the first electoral battle in which Ukip waged a modern, professional and intensive effort. It was the first time that Ukip experimented with a “voter identification system” – a database of information on each voter – and therefore the first time that the party approached different areas with different messages.

Thus Labour voters heard about opposition to the “bedroom tax” and the need to punish bankers; Tory voters heard about the need for more GPs. It was also the first time that younger Ukippers became seriously involved, learning the importance of more targeted, subtle and nuanced messages before their own campaigns next May along the East Coast.

Ironically, this change was not the product of diehard Ukippers but of two new recruits: the defector Douglas Carswell, who has long written about how to revitalise parties; and the experienced organiser Chris Bruni-Lowe, who used to run local referendums for MPs.

Their priority was to own the “local space” before other parties arrived. In Clacton, the frontline was not Europe or immigration. It was fixing street lights, finding more GPs, saving a maternity unit and curbing knife crime.

Precisely the same is now happening in Mark Reckless’s seat of Rochester and Strood. The Tories have started too late and remain focused on a story about the national economic recovery, which even a quick look at the surveys would show is not being felt by most Ukip voters.

Ukip, in sharp contrast, is targeting very local issues, while once again tailoring a different message for left-behind Labour voters. It has upgraded its voter identification system software to undertake the largest data collection exercise in its history, while nationally approving new rules to suspend members who “embarrass” Ukip online. Across the board it is displaying new discipline.

With a new committee to oversee its target seats, the evidence also points to an increasingly active electoral machine. Last month, just four months after Newark, Lord Ashcroft commissioned another survey. This time it was during the by-election in Heywood and Middleton, a traditional Labour seat.

Overall, 69 per cent of voters said they had heard from Labour during the campaign. Ukip scored 68 per cent, a remarkable figure considering it did not have a large branch in the area before the contest.

Of course, Ukip is still learning and has weaknesses. The party remains dependent on a handful of big donors, is in desperate need of a heavyweight director of communications and is inclined to disastrous Calypso-style public relations. But while it is tempting to dismiss Ukip as a band of amateur populists, the reality is that it is no longer an amateur operation.

14 November 2014

The significance of Rochester and Strood

This blog originally appeared over at the Britain Votes and Hansard Society Blog.

Less than a week from now we will witness the latest and most likely the last parliamentary by-election before the 2015 general election. 

The by-election in the Kent seat of Rochester and Strood follows the defection of Conservative MP Mark Reckless to Ukip –who is the second MP to defect to the Eurosceptic party. Reckless has followed his former colleague and friend Douglas Carswell, who at a by-election last month in Clacton won almost 60 per cent of the vote on a 44.1 per cent swing as a Ukip candidate. Together, they have brought experience and publicity to the insurgent Ukip and handed its leader Nigel Farage a useful response to the ‘wasted vote syndrome’ that tends to affect minor parties in the British system –once voters you conclude that you cannot win under first-past-the-post it is incredibly difficult to convince them otherwise.

When news of Reckless’ defection reached the Conservative Party it was met with anger and optimism –anger because of the perceived betrayal, and optimism because of a belief that Rochester and Strood is nothing like Clacton. Conservatives quickly united around the assumption that Reckless was not popular locally, that he was a mediocre campaigner who had failed to win the seat back in 2005, that the area was too affluent and middle-class for Ukip to win, and that Nigel Farage’s party was not professional enough to carry Reckless over the line. The conventional wisdom spread up the ranks to David Cameron who publicly aligned himself to the campaign and promised to throw “everything we can” at the battle. But then came the polls.

Each of the four opinion polls to date have given Ukip a comfortable lead of more than ten percentage points. Across all of the polls Ukip is averaging 43.7 per cent, well ahead of the Conservatives on 31.5 per cent and Labour on 19.7 per cent. If this snapshot turns out to be accurate then Ukip will achieve the second strongest by-election result in its entire history (behind Clacton). This picture is striking, but especially so given two other factors –the local demography and the nature of local support for Ukip.

Conservatives who point to the difficult demography for Ukip in this area of Kent are right. Rochester and Strood is more middle-class, slightly younger and more affluent than Farage would ideally like. This seat is not filled with the ‘left behind’ voters who we know from our research are most attracted to Ukip –older, white, working-class voters who often have no qualifications and are financially struggling. It is quite a different prospect from Clacton, for example, or Heywood and Middleton. That this seat in Kent has been a more complex battle for Ukip can be seen in the table below, which draws on research undertaken for our book Revolt on the Right.

The seats are ranked according to their demographic receptiveness to Ukip. Whereas Clacton emerges at number one, Reckless’ seat is found way down the list at number 271. Between these two seats are dozens of Conservative-held seats that may now start to appear on the radar of Ukip strategists as they decide where to target in May 2015. And this is what makes the predicted outcome significant. If Ukip is able to win against the Conservatives in the 271st most Ukip-friendly seat in the country then what does this mean for other Conservative-held seats in southern England? Even if Ukip fails to directly win in these seats it may yet have a profound indirect effect on the local outcomes, taking thousands of voters away from Cameron and costing him the general election.

A second point of significance concerns the types of voters who appear to be switching to Ukip in this seat. Contrary to popular wisdom that Ukip is simply a second home for exiled Conservatives, most of the party’s support in this part of the country appears to be coming from disillusioned voters who in 2010 voted for the Liberal Democrats, Labour, another party or stayed at home. Consider the latest poll from Lord Ashcroft: among those likely to vote, 44 per cent of 2010 Conservative voters plan to turn out for Reckless but so do 40 per cent of 2010 Labour voters, 23 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters and 81 per cent of respondents who said they had voted for another party. 

In other words Ukip may recruit a majority of its support in this seat from non-Conservatives. Part of this can be explained by Labour’s decision not to invest heavily in the by-election, thus removing an obvious home for many of these voters. But it also reflects Ukip’s growing professionalism and a strategy that has targeted non-Conservative voters.

12 November 2014

Why Rochester and Strood is significant

If you are interested in how we have calculated this index see the penultimate chapter in our book. You can find the Top 100 most Ukip-friendly Conservative seats in the country here, the Top 100 most Ukip-friendly Labour seats in the country here, and the most Ukip-friendly Liberal Democrat seats here.

11 November 2014

Where things stand - Rochester and Strood

A new poll in Rochester and Strood provides further insight into Ukip's evolving support ahead of this crunch parliamentary by-election. 

Today we have a new and fourth poll from Rochester and Strood, this time from Lord Ashcroft. The past three polls each gave Ukip a comfortable lead of 9, 13 and then 15 points. My hunch was that the new poll would show the race to be slightly tighter because of three factors. First, Lord Ashcroft polls (and others) in battles like Heywood and Middleton tended to underestimate Ukip support. Second, since the earlier batch of polls the Conservatives have been turning up the volume on their negative coverage of Mark Reckless, the Ukip candidate. And, third, Ukip are not used to being in the lead. It was plausible that a young party might take its foot off the pedal.

The latest snapshot does suggest a reduced Ukip lead of 12 points but the basic picture remains the same: a strong lead for Ukip, a difficult second for the Conservatives and David Cameron, and a distant third for Labour -a party that held this area of Kent as recently as 2010. If these snapshots turn out to be accurate on November 20th then Nigel Farage's party will be handed their second seat in the House of Commons -and in the 271st most Ukip-friendly seat in the country. 

The significance of the latest poll can be found in the detail. 

It confirms an interesting story that is emerging about the roots of support for Ukip in this Kent seat. This is what I wrote last week in my column for The Times Red Box based on the earlier polls: "Those who voted for the Conservatives in 2010 comprise less than half of Ukip’s current support in Rochester and Strood. In this battle Ukip is drawing significant support from disillusioned Liberal Democrats, and to a lesser extent Labour voters, while between 57 to 68 per cent of non-voters are planning to return to turnout for Reckless. A party that continues to be seen as a second home for exiled Tories is recruiting more widely, while Reckless also appears to be recruiting more successfully among the middle-aged than campaigns in the past that have depended heavily on the grey vote."

Now let's look at what Lord Ashcroft finds. 

Again -a more diverse base of support for Ukip. Overall 44% of 2010 Conservative voters plan to defect to Ukip while 40% of 2010 Labour voters and 23% of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters are planning to do the same. If this happens then the bulk of Ukip's support will come from non-Tories. Meanwhile, eight out of ten voters who said that they supported somebody else in 2010 are planning to turnout for Ukip. Suddenly, it seems that we are a long way from the 'Ukip = exiled Tories' argument that emerged in 2010-2012 and continues to drive much of Westminster thinking on this issue. And again this support is younger than usual -it is spread more evenly though especially among voters aged over 34 years old.

These numbers reflect how Ukip has been campaigning in the seat, which is something that we will discuss in detail in a forthcoming book. But it also reflects something else. By essentially withdrawing from this battle Labour is again easing the rise of Ukip. Were Labour taking the contest more seriously then Ukip's lead would be significantly diminished and the race would be far more competitive. But they are not. 

This is striking given that Labour controlled this area as recently as 2010, is the main party of opposition and has an impressive candidate in Naushabah Khan. The Labour candidate is especially strong when set against the abrasive Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst. Having watched both candidates in a televised debate last night (watch it here) it is the former that appeared as the better candidate. I am convinced that the Conservatives got this wrong -they should have stood a calmer, more inclusive and ultimately a more experienced candidate that non-Ukip voters could rally around. This mistake might be repeated in Thanet South where the Conservatives are again standing a similar 'Ukip-lite' candidate against Nigel Farage.

Labour's capitulation is most likely driven by short-term expediency rather than long-term strategy about how to reconnect with the voters that it needs. Use Ukip as a means of damaging Cameron. But this is a big gamble -for reasons that we set out here. By the time that Rochester and Strood might once again become competitive Ukip may have turned disillusioned left behind voters into loyal Kippers. Much as they are doing in the coastal seat of Clacton -also an area of the country where Labour used to be competitive.

But perhaps more significant than any of the above is what the data are pointing to in terms of party organization and campaigning. This is the neglected aspect of the Ukip story. Take a look at the party contact rates below -where pollsters ask voters whether they have been contacted by the parties in recent weeks. Ukip used to fall apart at this point in the survey. Put simply, the party's parliamentary by-election campaigns used to be shambolic.

But now Ukip is pushing ahead of the main parties; they are contacting more voters. This reflects internal change -new organisers, new software and a stronger grasp of how elections are fought (and won). Ukip is not doing anything that other parties are not doing but it is levelling the playing field and I suspect is benefitting from a more active and enthusiastic grassroots membership. Whether the party can sustain this level of activism at a general election remains to be seen.

'This is all just an anti-politics thing', some will say. At least that's what a journalist spent much of last night trying to tell me. This protest narrative is easy. It is simple. It is reassuring. It implies that -soon- all of this will go away once voters fall back in love with a main party. But those who push it rarely look at evidence. We know what Ukip voters think. It is not a mystery. They want Britain to leave the European Union. They want less immigration. They want reform in Westminster. And once again we have a poll that underscores the importance of these ideas over protest. Of those who say that they plan to support Ukip in Rochester and Strood some 82% say that policies are playing a 'large part' in their decision. Whether or not the party actually wins the contest remains to be seen, but along the way we are continuing to learn a great deal about its evolving support.

31 October 2014

Ukip and the South Yorkshire PCC election

The Labour Party has won the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election. Ukip finished in second place. The victory was sealed when Labour won Rotherham by 800 votes, avoiding a second round of voting by 0.02%.

It will be a relief for Labour, especially given other news about the party's support in Scotland and against the backdrop of the Heywood and Middleton parliamentary by-election, where Ukip pushed the party to within a few hundred votes of defeat. And it is a bad result for Ukip. The insurgent party has once again emerged as the second force in Labour territory and seen a sharp rise in its support. But there are four reasons why Ukip should have won this election.

The first is the national trend in party support. In polls that gauge Westminster voting intention, Ukip is averaging around 16 per cent, which is more than twice the level of support that the party need to inflict serious damage at the 2015 general election. Ukip are riding high nationally and that should have helped them cross the line in a low turnout PCC election. They are the insurgents who should be imposing themselves at every level of the political system. 

Second, even within this area Ukip have already been polling strongly. Ukip effectively won the popular vote in areas like Doncaster at the European Parliament elections and has increasingly strong branches in the Yorkshire region. Back in May Ukip polled 41 per cent in Rotherham, 35.1 per cent across Doncaster and 36 per cent in Barnsley. Both electorally and organisationally there are few credible reasons for not winning here -activists might say they were distracted by Rochester and Strood but that seems a weak argument. They are about to fight dozens of seats at a general election.

Third, the election follows a few specific events that should have given Ukip's campaign further momentum. Think about what these local voters would have seen in recent weeks. A national Ukip conference in Doncaster. A Ukip victory in Clacton. A national debate about Ukip inflicting damage on the main parties. And a consensus that Farage is about to be handed his second MP in Rochester and Strood. Ukip needs to ask itself why this has not spilled over into a low turnout election and where Labour were implicated in the local issue that was proving so potent locally.

This brings me to reason number four. Specific local grievances around child sexual exploitation and low trust in institutions handed Ukip an opportunity to mobilize anger around its anti-establishment and increasingly anti-Labour message. If the party wanted a perfect storm, this was arguably it. An economically struggling area of the country where many voters were incensed by an issue that was linked indirectly to religion and culture. Voters, it now seems, did not want to play ball to the extent that Ukip was hoping. They gave the party more votes but simply not enough.   

The broader point is that Farage knows that he needs to deliver serious damage in Labour territory to remove lingering doubts about the viability of his 'gun for Labour' strategy. Ukip are increasingly showing themselves able to make serious incursions into Labour territory but at some point they need something solid -an actual win at a by-election, or an actual Labour defection in Westminster. The PCC election in South Yorkshire was one such opportunity for the party to do so and on that level it has failed.

That all said it speaks volumes about Labour's internal weakness that it is using a result in a regional PCC election (one that it would seek to abolish after 2015) as a source of confidence. It also seems odd that Labour is comparing its performance in one PCC by-election, where the turnout was less than 15 per cent, to the Conservative's fortunes in the upcoming Rochester and Strood parliamentary by-election. If there is a valid point of comparison to the latter campaign then it is the parliamentary by-election in Heywood and Middleton, where Labour's result was far from solid. For some reason, Labour is not investing heavily in Rochester and Strood --an area that it controlled as recently as 2010. 

10 October 2014

Why Clacton is the perfect launchpad for Ukip

This blog originally appeared on Guardian Comment Is Free.

It was once said that new parties go up like a rocket but come down like a stick. Ukip had already achieved take-off before yesterday’s by-elections, but the results underscore the speed of its rise.

One year ago the consensus was that Ukip could not win a single seat in Westminster, and certainly did not challenge the Labour party. Six months ago, when Ukip won the European parliament elections, the feeling was that its revolt would crash and burn over the summer. But at every turning point the pundits have been wrong. Now, as Ukip averages 15% nationally, the party has been handed the first elected MP in its 21-year history and has come within a few hundred votes of defeating Labour in its traditional heartlands. Ukip – the party that has been dismissed and ridiculed – is taking its insurgency into the very heart of our political system.

Clacton provided the perfect launchpad. Its struggling workers, nostalgic pensioners and entrenched deprivation offered the ideal climate for a revolt that has drawn its strength from Britain’s “left behind”. The only barrier to a breakthrough was the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, who from 2002 worked tirelessly to take the seat from Labour and transform a slim majority of 920 votes into a formidable lead of more than 12,000. Clacton was Carswell’s for as long as he wanted. When hedefected this summer, the battle was over before it had even begun. There was little that Ukip had to convert. The perfect storm had gathered. A receptive audience was waiting. All that Nigel Farage needed to do was press the button and send his rocket into Westminster.

If Clacton underscores the immediate threat that Ukip poses, then the result further north points toward its longer-term strategy. In the northern Labour-held seat of Heywood and Middleton, Ukip polled 38.7%, almost a fifteen-fold increase on its support in 2010 and just 617 votes behind Labour. It is simply a remarkable result. It set a new byelection record for Ukip (and in a Labour seat), and was the first time since 1940 that a party other than Labour and the Conservatives appeared in the top two. It also arrived while Ukip was distracted by its campaign in Clacton. Yet in another Labour seat Ukip has emerged as the main party of opposition.

So what happens now? One view is that while Ukip might have an MP, its fragile rocket will soon splutter. Such voices point to the arrival of a second defector – Mark Reckless – as evidence that Farage might have doubled down one too many times. Clacton was an easy battle but Reckless’s seat of Rochester and Strood is an entirely different prospect. It is more naturally Conservative, middle class and younger. It is 271st on the list I compiled with Rob Ford of the most Ukip-friendly seats, some 270 places behind Clacton, 15 places behind Newark and only a few ahead of Wythenshawe and Sale East, where at recent by-elections Ukip was bulldozed aside.

Tories point to such findings and talk about mobilising a formidable army to crush this revolt once and for all. Even David Cameron has promised to lead from the front. “The fruitcakes”, declared a gleeful Matthew Parris, are about to go “back in their tin”.

This is Farage’s biggest gamble. But the results last night underline a question that many are avoiding: what if he wins? After Carswell took almost 60% of the vote and finished some 35 points clear of the Tories, a second Ukip victory in Rochester and Strood would be disastrous for Cameron. Defections are already proving contagious and another breakthrough could trigger more. “If we can win in Rochester and Strood,” Kippers will whisper in Westminster, “we can win anywhere.”

Farage will have real momentum and could kick open the floodgates to a higher number of defectors than is currently acknowledged. This comes with risks, of course. The greater the number of Conservative defectors, the harder it becomes for Farage to present Ukip as an alternative for the disgruntled working class in northern seats like Heywood and Middleton. But even so, suddenly we are talking about scenarios that simply did not seem plausible a year ago.

Hunter S Thompson once wrote that while there are many harsh lessons to be learned from gambling, the harshest of all is the difference between having fun and being smart. Farage has spent 20 years gambling in the wilderness. Perhaps he has learned some lessons. Perhaps the byelections last night will lead to a fundamental redrawing of Britain’s political map. Perhaps Ukip’s rocket will continue to soar. Or perhaps it will just fall out of the sky like a stick.

9 October 2014

Looking for Research Assistant(s)

We are seeking one or possibly two Research Assistants (RAs) for a research project related to the 2015 general election. The project is funded by the British Academy and will be led by Dr Matthew Goodwin at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. You will also be working with Dr Caitlin Milazzo, also at the University of Nottingham. 

The duties include (but are not limited to) gathering, coding and analysing data, and acquiring other information related to the campaign. You will:
  • Have, or be studying toward, a PhD or postdoctoral fellowship in the social sciences
  • Have a strong grasp of electoral research and preferably British politics (though not essential)
  • Have training in quantitative methods, and be able to work with STATA, R and Excel
  • Experience of managing data and building original data sets
  • Familiarity with British Election Study, British Social Attitudes and Census data is desirable.

The research posts will commence from November 1 2014 and continue until the general election in May 2015. Compensation is £11.21 per hour, with 600 hours of work that will be completed by one or two RAs depending on the applications.

If you are interested in being considered please email a short CV and an expression of interest (no more than 300 words) to Dr Matthew Goodwin ( by 5pm, Monday 27 October. In the expression of interest, please supply the name of a personal referee who is familiar with your training and research, and indicate any relevant qualifications.  The expression of interest should be saved as a PDF file and attached to the email.

Closing date: 27 October 2014

1 October 2014

Farage is outflanking the Tories -and they have no answer

This blog originally appeared over at Guardian Comment Is Free.

At the Conservatives’ last conference before the 2010 general election, William Hague issued a rallying cry to the party members. They were, he reminded them, in the oldest and most successful political party in the world. Today the claim sounds less impressive than it once did.

The Conservatives have not secured a majority since 1992. They have failed to find peace and discipline on the issue of Europe. A unifying vision of Conservatism feels increasingly distant. And now, remarkably, they are being outplayed by Ukip. The Conservatives are offering a masterclass in how not to manage a radical right insurgency. Far from containing it, they have haemorrhaged support. The scale of the desertion to Ukip is striking. Since 2010, more than one in four Conservative voters have left David Cameron, with more than half going to Ukip. If this continues, Nigel Farage will cost the Tories the general election.

This is ultimately a story about political failure, and an intriguing one given the disparity between the two parties. For every one Ukip member, the Conservatives have three. For every £1 Ukip raised last year, the Conservatives raised £10. And while Ukip depends on fewer than 20 full-time staff, the Conservative war room is filled with rows of researchers, overseen by the legendary strategist, Lynton Crosby. So what has gone wrong?

The most obvious problem is that because of where the Conservatives started, they had nowhere to go. Their fightback against Ukip began withpublic and personal ridicule – the gadflies, fruitcakes, clowns and racists. Even Cameron joined in. It was the political equivalent of pouring gasoline on a raging fire. To the average Kipper, Cameron was already a symbol of the Oxbridge-educated, socially liberal and financially privileged political class that has pushed Britain in a direction they find abhorrent and betrayed their brand of conservatism. This is why his personal ratings among voters who are Eurosceptic, anxious about immigration and angry with Westminster have plummeted. With Cameron in charge, most Ukip voters will not return. It really is that simple. Nor have the Tories learned their lessons. On Monday evening, while Cameron talked about reassuring these voters, Boris Johnson was suggesting that they have sex with vacuum cleaners .

Some suggest that the strategy is more nuanced and designed to polarise opinion on Ukip: to accept the risk of entrenching its appeal among an (older) 30% while strengthening wider opposition. But this makes no sense. Why push three in 10 voters behind a rival party before one of the most unpredictable general elections in history? Either way, it has been a failure. Recent surveys suggest Farage has become more popular since May.

By the time the Conservatives had moved on to policy offers, Ukippers had left the conversation. Those offers include a referendum on EU membership, raising the volume on the net migration target, cutting benefits for EU migrants, and now tweaks to pensions in the hope of winning back Ukip’s older voters, more than one in three of whom are over 54 years old. These are the most distrustful voters in British politics, and they do not think in transactional policy terms. What Conservatives (and Labour) fail to understand is that Ukip’s appeal is as much about a diffuse but intense feeling of unease over the direction and pace of social change in modern Britain as it is about a specific and yearning desire to end immigration, leave the EU or reform Westminster. These voters do not like how Britain is changing, and they loathe politicians even more. This explains their nihilistic quality. In their hearts most Ukippers probably know that they might not get what they want. But some people just want to watch the world burn.

This is why it is remarkable to hear Conservatives now talk of neutralising Ukip by stressing the economic recovery. Ukip’s left-behind voters are the least likely of all to have felt the recovery or feel it in the future. Pessimistic and insecure, they are voters who struggled long before the crisis and then got hit the hardest by recession and austerity. They do not share Cameron’s optimism about the economy. Why would they?

Throughout all of this Cameron, Crosby and the Conservatives have also underestimated Farage. Like him or loathe him, Farage has evolved into a formidable operator who commands total control of his party. His awareness of Ukip’s weaknesses, growing ability to communicate outside of the traditional political space (for example the Ryder Cup ad ) and refusal to forge a pact with the Tories are his core strengths. Momentum is also on his side. In managing the Carswell and Reckless defections, Farage has twice outflanked Crosby in as many months. And there may be more to come. If the Tories have a containment strategy then Farage is showing it to be woefully ineffective. And for the Conservatives, it might all be too late.

25 September 2014

Why it's time to take Ukip seriously

This blog originally appeared at the Financial Times

One of the unwritten laws in British politics is that insurgent parties can never thrive. Writing in the 1950s, the French political scientist Maurice Duverger observed how majoritarian systems like that in Britain tend to produce a strong two-party system that leaves little room for challengers. But in recent years and as Britain's system has become more fragmented and less predictable, 'Duverger's Law' has seemed increasingly outdated. Since 2010 these changes have been reflected most vividly in the rise of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which is the most significant new force to emerge in the entire postwar period. With a general election less than eight months away, Ukip is today descending on the Labour-held town of Doncaster to plot the next stage in its insurgency and there are three reasons why it should be taken seriously.

First, Ukip is already growing at an extraordinary pace and among specific groups. Prior to 2010 the party was an amateurish and poorly-disciplined pressure group. Since then Ukip has risen steadily in the polls to average 14%, well ahead of the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, and around twice the level that it needs to have a serious impact on the outcome in 2015. Its membership has risen to 38,000 at a time when party memberships are falling, it has attracted a credible Conservative Party defector (and almost certainly its first elected MP) in Douglas Carswell, and in May Ukip won the European Parliament elections after polling over four million votes. It was the first nationwide victory for a new party since Ramsay MacDonald led Labour to general election success in 1929. Ukip has achieved all of this with no more than twenty full-time staff.

Crucially, Ukip's growth has come from the most socially distinctive electorate in British politics. Ukip is not a catch-all populist party. Its appeal is rooted strongly in Britain's 'left behind'; older, white and working-class citizens who have few qualifications, are pessimistic about the future and profoundly anxious over rapid social change. This profile contains messages for both the Conservatives and Labour. Currently, around two-thirds of Ukip voters supported the Conservatives in 2010 (although before 2010 many say they voted Labour). Senior Tory strategists assume that most of these voters will return to the fold in May. But the disadvantaged profile of these voters points in another direction. These are voters who were struggling long before the financial crisis, will not have felt the economic recovery and may conclude that their prospects are better served with Farage or by staying at home. For Labour, if Ukip did not exist then some of these voters should be expected to switch to the left and give Ed Miliband a more convincing majority. Instead, they are turning to Farage who argues that both parties have betrayed the working-class. Given the first-past-the-post system it is also important that these voters tend to concentrate geographically, which is why in May 2015 Ukip has a credible chance in struggling seats like Clacton, Great Grimsby, Thurrock, Thanet South and Rotherham.  

A second factor is messaging. Single-issue parties rarely proper but Ukip has come a long way from its beginnings as an anti-EU pressure group. Our research, based on surveys of more than 6,000 Ukip voters, found that they share three motives: a strong desire to leave the EU; intense anxiety over immigration; and fierce hostility toward the established parties. There might be no 'Ukip-ism' but Farage has successfully fused the EU and immigration in the minds of his voters, supplementing this with an articular populist appeal. Tomorrow, Ukip will unveil new policies to support its quest for disgruntled Tories and blue-collar Britons who might once have voted Labour or have since abandoned politics. Abolishing inheritance tax and opposing climate change is aimed at older, mainly southern Tories who view Cameroonism as a complete betrayal of their social conservative principles. But taking low earners out of income tax, opposing the bedroom tax, cutting overseas aid, curbing immigration and making greater use of referenda are clearly aimed at Britain's left behind, as is the decision to hold the conference in Doncaster.

Looking ahead, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the wider habitat of British politics will also remain welcoming to Ukip and possibly other insurgents. In sharp contrast to the days of Duverger's Law, when between them Labour and the Conservatives could mobilise over 95% of the vote, today Britain's party system today looks increasingly fragmented and volatile. At the two most recent general elections the two main parties failed to secure over 70% of the vote while political trust is also in a downward spiral; the percentage of voters who trust politicians to 'put the nation first' has slumped from around 40% in the mid-1980s to 17% today. Alongside a growing unwillingness among voters to self-identify with the 'big two', these deeper currents are shaking the foundations of the system while the issues that guide our political debate on the surface are also changing. As public concern over the economy continues to slide, immigration has emerged as the number one issue for voters while around half of the electorate now refuses to trust any of the main parties on this issue. This is opening the door for Ukip and Farage, or as an academic colleague, Professor John Curtice, recently noted: 'Player Four has entered the game'.

24 September 2014

A modern peasants' revolt against Westminster

This blog originally appeared at Guardian Comment Is Free

The destiny of political insurgencies is often shaped by specific events. While challenges to mainstream authority might be a long-time coming, anchored in groups of citizens who have long felt ignored or poorly treated, their eruption into political life is often fuelled by a chain of events. In the 14th century, strongly held grievances among rural workers laid the foundation for the Peasants’ Revolt. But it was the arrival of tax collectors in south-east England that proved the final straw, turning a protest into a wider insurgency across much of Essex, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk.

Fast forward more than 600 years and it is perhaps no coincidence that the same areas of England are emerging as the heartland of a new insurgency against London elites. Much like the Peasants’ Revolt, Ukip is anchored in older grievances among working class Britons who feel left behind economically, are angry about the political elites in London, and profoundly anxious over the pace of social change. And like those workers in the 14th century who flocked around the apparently charismatic Wat Tyler, over the coming weeks Nigel Farage will lead his followers through a chain of events that will determine the destiny of his modern revolt against Westminster.

The first of these events is on Thursday, when 2,000 Ukippers will descend on the Labour-held town of Doncaster for its annual conference. This will be Ukip’s last major gathering before the 2015 campaign, which will be Farage’s first general election as leader. The location is symbolic. Farage could have assembled his army of the left-behind in one of his east coast strongholds, but these days he is more ambitious. Ukip branches in Yorkshire are growing quickly and, in the aftermath of child sexual exploitation cases, a perfect storm is gathering in nearby Labour-held seats such as Rotherham. Doncaster is very much about sending a message, but it will also shape the message of this revolt itself.

Ukip is no longer a single-issue party. Since 2010, the party has successfully merged Europe and immigration in the minds of its voters. But its insurgency still faces a major hurdle that is reflected in recent polling by Ipsos Mori. Whereas Ukip has become the preferred party among all voters on the two issues of Europe and immigration, it is not even on the radar when it comes to subjects such as the economy, health and education. So long as immigration remains a top issue – it is currently number one – this narrow appeal does not matter. But this will not always be the case.

This is what led Farage to initiate a review of policy over the summer. Doncaster will be used to set out this broader pitch to struggling voters who, arguably, Labour should be winning over: no tax on the minimum wage; opposition to the bedroom tax; cuts to overseas aid; direct democracy; grammar schools; and a rebuttal to Labour’s claims that Ukip would privatise the NHS and charge voters to see their local GP. Ukip and Farage have walked into the casino of British politics, and by modifying their message they are about to double down on the left-behind.

The second event arrives two weeks later, on 9 October, in the southern coastal seat of Clacton where a parliamentary byelection will see Ukip almost certainly secure its first elected MP. But the significance of Clacton is not just about the seat. This local battle offers an intriguing look into the political geography behind Ukip’s revolt. On the ground, the party has been targeting two groups of voters: struggling workers in disadvantaged Labour-leaning areas such as Jaywick, and disgruntled Tories in more secure areas such as Frinton. Farage has been sent into working class pubs; Douglas Carswell to knock up angry Tories.

Clacton is a microcosm of what Ukip is trying to achieve nationally: a coalition of left-behind Britons who once voted Labour, and social conservatives who dislike Brussels and loathe Cameronism even more. Whether Ukip can anchor its insurgency in this more diverse, and hence sustainable, electorate remains to be seen. But what is clear is that its lieutenants are learning; all of those who will be running Ukip campaigns along the east coast are helping Carswell in Clacton.

The final event arrives on the same day, but in the northern Labour-held seat of Heywood and Middleton. Ukip is unlikely to win this Labour-friendly seat, but the battle will shape its revolt in another way. Farage is no Pierre Poujade – the populist who led a flash protest against the French establishment in the 1950s. He has a clear strategy for building a longer insurgency, a core plank of which is to establish Ukip as Labour’s main opposition in the north. Nor is this political fantasy: at the European elections in May, across 51 authorities in the north-west and north-east, Ukip finished ahead of Labour in 18 and as its main rival in 30. A strong second-place finish in Heywood and Middleton will underscore the strategy.

If Ukip can win the popular vote across a swath of Labour territory when Ed Miliband and Labour are the official opposition, then what will happen at the 2016 local elections and thereafter, when Labour is the unpopular incumbent?

11 September 2014

How Ukip's support has evolved over time

This blog originally appeared at Guardian Comment Is Free and is co-authored with Caitlin Milazzo.

Later this month, Ukip will descend on the northern Labour-held town of Doncaster to hold its annual conference. The party has good cause to celebrate. Since its last conference in 2013, at which Nigel Farage was overshadowed by Godfrey Bloom, Ukip has made a serious advance in British politics. The party won the European parliament elections, has since revamped its front team and now, after the defection of Douglas Carswell in Clacton, looks set to win its first seat in parliament. But how has support for Ukip been evolving during all this?

To answer this question we can draw on the prestigious British Election Study, which has just released the results of its latest survey, undertaken after the European elections. This means we can compare the findings to surveys earlier in the year to explore how support for Ukip has changed, if at all. There are three important messages.

The first is that over the period of the European parliament elections, Ukip’s appeal widened along the political spectrum (as some of us have been arguing). Former Conservative voters continue to provide the bulk of support to Farage; of those who voted Conservative in 2010, 20% say that they are planning to vote Ukip in 2015 (up from 17% in February).

But since the beginning of the year, Ukip has also been winning more support from disaffected Liberal Democrats and Labour voters. By June, almost a quarter (22%) of Ukip’s support came from voters who previously chose one of these two parties. Of the two, the shift from Labour supporters to Ukip has been the most significant, increasing from 5% to 11% at the time of the European elections.

Meanwhile, support among Lib Dem voters for Ukip has increased from 11% to 13%, providing further evidence that Ukip is possibly beginning to attract the protest element of the Lib Dem base. Clearly, many of these voters might only have switched to Ukip for the European elections. The challenge facing Farage is to convert them into long-term supporters, while the task facing the main parties is to win them back.

The second message is that the anti-Ukip campaign appears to have had no significant effect on how the British public feels about Ukip or Farage. Before the European elections, 25% of respondents said they “liked” Ukip and 23% liked Farage. When these voters were surveyed again after the European elections, 28% liked Ukip (+3%) and 27% liked Farage (+4%). Despite repeated attempts to portray the party in a negative light, Ukip and its leader actually became more likable in the eyes of the public. In fact, Farage managed to outperform both David Cameron (whose likability increased by 0.2%) and Ed Miliband (whose likability declined by 2% during the same period).

But it is not all good news for Ukip. The final message from the data is that Ukip continues to face challenges ahead of 2015. On one level, support for it has remained stable since the European elections. Contrary to the predictions of commentators such as Dan Hodges (who promptly declared after the famous LBC interview that “Farage is finished”), the number of voters who say they plan to vote Ukip in 2015 has risen, from 12% in the pre-European election period to 16% post-election.

But there is a slight decline in the percentage of Ukip voters who plan to stay loyal at the 2015 election; this is down five points to 52%. While this level of support is sufficient for Ukip to affect the outcome in 2015, Farage will need to be thinking of ways to ensure this decline does not continue.

Interestingly, it is women who appear especially nervous about supporting Ukip. While there is some evidence that Ukip was successful in closing the gender gap by appealing to more women at the European elections, it is women who are now the most likely to abandon the party. Before the European polls, 62% of female Ukip supporters planned to stay loyal but that is down to 53%, a drop of nine points (men dropped two points to 51%). Whether Ukip’s new female spokespersons, such as Suzanne Evans and Louise Bours, will stem this decline remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Ukip’s support is far from static, and as the party approaches the 2015 election it may yet see further change.

8 September 2014

The voters of Clacton don't deserve Matthew Parris's Sneering Contempt

This blog originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph.

Clacton – the "friendly resort trying not to die, filled with friendly people trying not to die". Having spent the day in Clacton, Matthew Parris of the Times got out as quickly as he could and advises the Conservative Party to do the same. To keep pace with modern Britain, he says the Tories should turn away from seats like Clacton, redolent as they are only of shell suits and death. The future, argues Parris, lies elsewhere: with the immigrants and graduates who are taking their dreams to the big cities, and who embrace the new cosmopolitan reality. The future for modern Conservativism lies in Cambridge, he concludes, not Clacton.
There is no denying the core of Parris’s argument. The rise of the new middle class – with its university degrees, relative financial security and more liberal outlook – is one of the great social changes of the past generation. Britain is becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse, more white-collar and more cosmopolitan, and this will only accelerate in the years to come. Parris is right: any party that fails to recognise and adapt to this social change is doomed. But there are also three problems with his prognosis.
First, while it may play well at dinner parties in SW1 in the short-term, it is a recipe for electoral suicide. Social change is a long-term game, and one that plays itself out over generations. More to the point, it is not even certain that the Conservative Party could win this game; by the time that it attracts the kinds of voters Parris likes, it might have been out of power for a long time. Look at the east coast, from the Humber Estuary to Portsmouth. As Ian Warren notes, at the last election the Tories won 32 of these 38 seats, depending heavily on the same elderly, nostalgic and left-behind white voters who Parris now urges them to ignore. Were the centre-Right to follow his advice, it would not only lose its east flank but also jeopardise its entire blue-collar vote at a time when it is simultaneously failing to win over the young and minority voters who Parris presumably sees as the future.
Second, Parris has plenty to say about the values, fashion and pastimes of the left-behind but shows no interest in explaining how or why they were left behind in the first place. Instead, he reinforces a perception among these voters of a London-centric elite that is indifferent to their plight. The left-behind were never given the resources to adapt to the new economic reality, and are now abused for failing to keep up. This reveals a lot about the priorities and values of a section of our commentariat that ironically has also struggled to make sense of the appeal of Ukip. Parris's digs at the fashion choices, pastimes and eating habits of Clacton residents are revealing, showing a prejudice based on class, which presumably would be unacceptable were it based on race, gender equality or sexual orientation.
Third, Parris is symbolic of a broader problem affecting our political class. This is not the first time the left-behind have heard this argument. A straight line can be drawn from Parris’s day in Clacton to Gordon Brown’s day with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. The arrogance and indifference of the Right has its match on the Left. The argument that the future lies with the aspirational classes was made 20 years ago by Tony Blair and it was not long ago that his old adviser, John McTernan, dismissed the same voters as the "lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices", similarly urging Labour to ignore them and focus on ethnic minority voters. The same elites who urged ignoring working-class voters are then shocked when such voters defect to Ukip, now the most working-class party in British politics.
Can we imagine any other large section of the electorate being treated with such contempt? Is it any wonder that the left-behind has responded in kind, turning to figures like Nigel Farage who has already put Parris quotations on Ukip leaflets? Parris worries that the Conservatives will be "drawn to a town called Hopeless", investing their hopes in "the disappointed, the angry, the nostalgic and the fearful". That seems an odd concern to hold about the party of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.
Should our commentators not be more worried by the fact that more than 50 per cent of blue-collar Britons now strongly agree that they "have no voice" in politics, which is the highest figure ever recorded? That voters’ political trust, identification with the main parties, and faith in their ability to solve major problems are at an all-time low? Instead of seriously debating these questions we are offered Parris, who instead calls on elected leaders to ignore these voters en masse. The people of Clacton may not have the right clothes or haircuts, but they have a right to a respectful hearing from our political class and a proper response to problems that have been festering for decades. The right way to win the town called Hopeless is not to sneer and turn our backs, but to give its residents some reasons to hope again.

31 August 2014

Why Labour should not be complacent about Ukip's advance

This blog originally appeared in the Financial Times

The UK Independence Party turns twenty-one years old this month and has good cause to celebrate. The insurgent party won a national election in May and last week enjoyed the most significant coup in its entire history when Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip and announced he will put his decision before voters at a forthcoming by-election. Given that his struggling coastal seat of Clacton is the most demographically favourable seat for Ukip in the entire country Carswell has almost certainly handed Ukip its first elected Member of Parliament.

The events in Clacton will be seen by many as validating one of the oldest myths about Ukip; that it is nothing more than a second home for disgruntled Conservatives. Carswell’s defection will be especially welcome on the left of British politics, where many argue that Ukip is dividing the right, igniting a civil war over Europe and clearing the path for Labour’s return to power in 2015, and perhaps a new era of electoral dominance.

But while it is true that Ukip is currently drawing more votes from Conservatives this is also a dangerously misguided assumption. To understand why we can start with Clacton. The seat has the largest concentration of ‘left behind’ voters who have been the most receptive to Ukip since 2010; older, white, blue-collar voters who lack qualifications, felt left behind by Britain’s economic transformation long before the crisis, are cut adrift from politics in Brussels and Westminster, and intensely anxious over the cultural as well as economic effects of migration.

But as a Conservative-held seat Clacton is also something of an outlier. For our book, Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and I ranked all seats according to their demographic receptiveness to Ukip. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, most are in Labour territory where MPs are battling with the same cocktail as Carswell: economic stagnation; unease over migration; an entrenched anti-politics consensus; and broader anxieties over rapid social change. Of the twenty seats that are the most demographically receptive to Ukip, 18 have Labour incumbents. Of the top 50, Labour holds 42.

Of course, demography alone is not necessarily destiny. Aside from a receptive local population Ukip also needs a favourable political context where a breakthrough is at least possible. Unlike Conservative-held seats that are at genuine risk from Ukip – like Clacton, Thurrock, Thanet South, Great Yarmouth and Boston and Skegness - Labour’s heartland seats are currently protected by large majorities. But only a cursory glance at the recent European Parliament results reveals the direction of travel.

Without strong branches and trained activists Ukip comfortably won the popular vote in a swathe of Labour territory where left behind voters congregate: Grimsby, Rotherham, Doncaster, Kingston-Upon-Hull, Stoke-on-Trent, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Walsall and even parts of Wales. Ukip talks ambitiously of becoming the main rival to Labour for the left behind vote in northern England. It appears to be succeeding. Across 39 local authorities in the North West, Ukip won more votes than Labour in 13 and finished as its main rival in 23. It is similarly bleak in the North East; across 12 authorities Ukip won the popular vote in five and finished second to Labour in seven. You only need to look at constituencies like Great Grimsby, Thurrock, Rotherham, Dudley North and Wentworth and Dearne, among others, to see how this might evolve over the longer-term.

This rapid growth can be explained by the fact that, since 2010, Ukip has grown fastest among the groups among which Labour are struggling the most: the over-65s, the working-class and those who left education at the earliest opportunity. Ukip is tearing off this left behind section of the electorate, creating a new fundamental divide in British politics between those with the skills, education and resources to adapt, and those who have little and feel intensely angry. This is why some Ukippers talk of a “2020 strategy” and plot further advances under an unpopular Ed Miliband-led post-2015 government.

It is this concentration of support that gives Ukip’s revolt such potential. Those who compare the party to earlier attempts to redraw the political map, such as the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, or populist crusaders like the French Poujadists in the 1950s, miss a crucial point. Ukip is anchored in the most socially distinctive support base in modern Britain; it is the most working-class party since Michael Foot’s Labour Party. Labelling Ukip as ‘populist’ implies that it is a catch-all movement that appeals across society. It is not. Its strength is concentrated in the left behind, who cluster in specific geographical areas. Crucially, this is essential for success under first-past-the-post.

Labour should be under no illusion. Ukip is attracting the Carswell’s of this world but it is also rapidly emerging as the main opposition in many northern heartlands where it benefits from other factors; the toxicity of the Tories in the north; moribund Labour machines that have not had to compete for decades; and the short-sightedness of some close to Ed Miliband who think only of how Ukip might impact in 2015, and not beyond. Should Ukip’s insurgency continue, not only will it cause a rupture on the centre right but also bring back into play Labour constituencies that have not been competitive for generations.