Revolt on the Right

10 October 2014

Clacton has sent the Ukip rocket into Westminster


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 (matthew.goodwin@nottingham.ac.uk) 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.