Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have teased their sure-to-be excellent book Revolt on the Right, an analysis of the rise of UKIP, in the Guardian. Their warning to Ed Miliband’s party is stark: UKIP are taking old male working class voters and as such are a threat.
The party should take UKIP seriously, but here’s five reasons not to panic:
1) A large chunk of the working class has never voted Labour
At the height of class voting in 1964, one third of working class voters did not vote for Labour.
The key to understanding Labour voting patterns traditionally, has not been by discerning where the poorest voters live, but where union culture has socialised communities into Labour voters. That is why for example, in the interwar period in Manchester, skilled well-paid railway workers were more likely to vote Labour than unskilled, poorer dock labourers.
If you look at where UKIP was strongest during the 2013 county council elections, it was in working class areas with little Labour tradition (e.g. South East Lincolnshire) or one that had all but died (Forest of Dean). Where Labour culture has declined, such as South Yorkshire, there is a definite problem. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that the ‘Labour core vote’ and the ‘working class vote’ are synonymous. They aren’t.
2) UKIP’s potential supporter base is literally dying out
Goodwin and Ford describe the UKIP-Labour floating voter as ‘blue collared, grey-haired and white-faced’. One reason why these voters feel insecure is because the country feels very different to the one they grew up in .As Goodwin and Ford say:
“When Harold Wilson was elected in 1964, working-class voters outnumbered professional middle-class voters two to one; by 2010 the professional middle classes had a four to three advantage.”
They point out that UKIP’s voter base is the most working class for any party since Foot’s Labour – but it’s worth saying that that didn’t work out particularly well. Of those that are working class, the proportion who belong to ethnic minorities or are immigrants has also increased. There will be some areas where the white working class are the core part of a Labour MP’s voter coalition and they will need to act accordingly. But I know of one constituency where Labour are in third place, which has a large white working class population but which is seeing an increasing number of professionals and ethnic minorities move into the area – that “shun the party totally”.
The Labour PPC has wisely decided to build for the future by not alienating these people by moving towards UKIP – which seems entirely sensible plan for their constituency. But it may make the problems Goodwin and Ford identify worse in the short term.
3) First Past the Post creates a political closed shop
First Past the Post, although it may not create a two party system overall, still drives each individual constituency towards a two-party competition.
This makes it very difficult for a new party to break through. In fact, Labour may have been uniquely placed to do this given how dominant union culture was in many constituencies in the first half of the twentieth century – but it may have been a once-in-history shot. One analysis shows that UKIP would need at least 20% of the vote before it started making real inroads
4) The Union firewall
One of the reasons that the SDP didn’t break through was the Labour’s union firewall. Trade unions give the Labour Party organisational ballast, a potential base in all parts of the country, and potentially willing civil society partners. The unions may not be as strong as they once were, but there are still six million trade unionists in this country. The unions, to an extent, enjoy ‘last man standing status’.
If heavy duty political volunteering is on the decline generally, the advantage of those with some capacity left even greater. If you want to get campaigning off the ground in this country, you speak to unions and churches – just ask Make Poverty History and London Citizens. And neither of those groups likely to be fertile for UKIP.
Ironically, the Collins reforms should revitalise the union-link.
Before we could just take it for granted, and it was, being allowed to slowly deteriorate over the decades. Now we have to tend to it, or it will die. I hope, either through official parts of the party or a new organisation, that the agenda Luke Akehurst outlined is adopted.
5) Labour knows the answer – it just needs to implement it
UKIP offer a strategic puzzle: How do you deal with a large but diminishing threat. Ignore it, and you take a short-term hit. Attend to it too much, and you store up problems for the future.
My sense is that the UKIP threat will peak at 2015, if it hasn’t peaked already.
The answer to such a threat is to have a varied response that is sensitive to local conditions.
Parties may shun Fabian central planning in their manifestos, but the Webbs would surely smile upon Jim Messina’s data-driven approach to campaigning, where each voter is an X in a formula that spits out the messaging they require. But it lacks flexibility. Labour’s leadership has accepted the need to rebuild a mass voluntary party, engaged in communities, on the Arnie Graf model. Those personal relationships between voters and representatives of local labour parties who look and sound like them, can defeat any anger that UKIP can stir at some far away elite.
There are rumours however, that many at the top of Labour are not convinced of the need to build local parties. There are apparently some with the attitude of ‘I’ve only got 50 members and I’ve got a 10,000 majority’.
Such figures better buck up their ideas, or UKIP will be a threat.