In what was a surprise result, the United Kingdom Independence Party came second in the Barnsley Central by-election. One of the things that struck me immediately was the overtly dismissive reaction to this result. On the BBC they brushed UKIP’s performance aside saying essentially they had been the incidental beneficiaries of lacklustre Conservative and Liberal Democrat campaigns. Labour comrades on the Twittersphere seemed genuinely more concerned about the British National Party and it was suggested to me that strong UKIP performances were good news for Labour because they would split the Conservative vote.
Let’s dismiss that myth straight away. UKIP do not just pick up votes from natural Conservative constituencies. In a study of UKIP, Dr Robert Ford of the University of Manchester and and Dr Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham found two types of UKIP voter:
“On one side are ‘strategic defectors’, who vote UKIP at European elections, but then return to the Conservatives at domestic general elections where more is at stake. These voters tend to be more economically secure, more middle class and motivated mainly by their Euroscepticism. On the other side, however, are the ‘core loyalists’ who vote UKIP in Westminster elections as well as European Parliament polls. It is the ‘core loyalists’ who have most in common with BNP supporters: they are poorer, more working class and more dissatisfied with the main parties.”
In other words it is perfectly capable of eating into what is a core constituency for Labour. Furthermore, its quite easy to see how these two types of voters could cohere around UKIP to form a large pool of potential support. When it comes to the first type it is obvious that this government’s programme of austerity is going to dramatically reduce their economic security. Is it thus inconceivable that it may start to see less strategic benefit in ‘switching back’ at domestic elections? Furthermore, it feels no natural affinity for Labour which it does not view as its party. As for the second type, while it feels threatened by the government this group may by and large huddle round Labour because that is what it traditionally does. In that regard it may become the strategic switching group.
What if that changes though? In terms of the Labour narrative this is one problem I have with a exclusive focus on the ‘squeezed middle’ – it sends the unfortunate message to the suffering poor that Labour and indeed the wider political spectrum simply could not care less about their predicament. The only logical conclusion it can then reach is that it is ‘us’ against them and the anti-establishment appeal of UKIP will be an obvious magnet along with their popularist lines on immigration and Europe. I want a socially broad-based progressive coalition, indeed, I feel Labour has a unique chance to unite the vast majority of the British electorate behind a programme to radically transform our society. However, this won’t be done by the exclusion of the most vulnerable groups. If we push these people away, they become easy prey for the likes of UKIP.
UKIP is very well placed to build a broad-based political coalition especially in the current economic climate. It is not burdened with the BNP (and indeed the EDL) ‘boot-boy’ image. Voting for UKIP is acceptable. It’s not ‘mainstream’ but its not socially stigmatised in the way voting for the BNP or supporting the EDL is. Bearing this in mind, we should look at the results of the recent Searchlight poll suggesting high levels of potential support for the far-right in a new light. It wrongly sees the EDL as the potential beneficiaries of the trends it identifies, my contention is UKIP is much more obviously placed to benefit.
The only fly in the ointment I can see for UKIP is that they have yet to adapt their organisation to fight Westminster elections effectively. Also, they have not built a significant councillor base. Nonetheless, these are things that can be quickly remedied and changed.
We underestimate UKIP at our peril.