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The threat from UKIP to Labour – the evidence

farage with demon eyesIn the aftermath of the Wythenshawe by-election, there seems to have been a general sigh of relief. “Ukip is not even going to scratch the mould of British politics, never mind break it,said Dan Hodges, who adds “they’re just a group of angry former Conservatives” and Ed Miliband “can safely ignore” the threat from UKIP. On the left, Socialist Action also believe that there is “no significant electoral threat to Labour from UKIP” though they do (rightly) point to the danger of Labour making policy concessions in UKIP’s direction, and (rightly) argue that UKIP’s “racist agenda needs to be resolutely fought“.

However, to dismiss the electoral threat to Labour in the aftermath of Wythenshawe is the wrong political judgement. The Tories deliberately bigged up the UKIP threat to Labour in advance of the by-election because it was a win-win for them: either it would increase defections from Labour to UKIP, or (as happened) UKIP would disappoint. We should not be fooled by that. But is also unjustified by the polling data.

Socialist Action quote, in support of their case, polling data from Lord Ashcroft which shows that 45% of UKIP’s current support voted Tory in 2010, compared with 8% who voted Labour. However, Robert Ford & Matthew Goodwin, academics (Manchester and Nottingham respectively) whose book on where support for UKIP comes from is published next month, present similar data for UKIP converts since 2010 (Con 47%, Lab 10%) but very different data for converts between 2005 and 2010 (Con 39%, Lab 43%).  Steve Turner of Oxford University, analysing UKIP results in 2012 and 2013, concluded that UKIP in that period was also taking as many voters from Labour as the Tories.

Ford and Goodwin point out that UKIP supporters (unlike their activists) are more working class than those of any other party. They are “alienated by the mainstream parties“, “deeply hostile to the domestic political establishment” and believe that they have been treated unfairly by government.

Peter Kellner of YouGov recently wrote an interesting piece about the volatility of the British electorate, providing some figures on the “churn” between parties. This showed, for example, that Labour has lost 2.5m votes (including 0.5m through death) since 2010 but gained 3.7m whilst the Tories have lost 4.2m and gained 1.9m.

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It is extremely helpful to have this illustration of voter churn, because it helps understanding of the UKIP vote. Because many of those who have come to UKIP from the Tories since 2010 may well have come from Labour before that, perhaps with a period of not voting in between.

And of course even this analysis by Kellner does not fully illustrate the churn between  voting and not voting. It is hard to do because polling does not register “not voting” —  that is something only observed in elections. Polling does register “don’t knows” and attempts to measure “likelihood to vote”, and it is of course uncertainty and apathy or detatchment which results in not voting. And these are characteristics which are likely to be present in anyone thinking of switching to backing UKIP.

My suspicion is that quite a few of the five million votes lost under New Labour between 1997 and 2010 now support UKIP, though they have got there in different ways and at different times. More of them might do so in the future, plus some of those who continue to become alienated from politics. UKIP is clearly already proven to be a party capable of attracting a large working class base of support. Labour is a party that has alienated a large body of working class voters, and though it wants in principle to build up its working class membership and its proportion of working class candidates, it is much less willing to offer policies bold enough to win working class voters back.

UKIP might not be a threat to Labour in 2015 because it will, at that election, hurt the Tories more than Labour. But in the long term, UKIP is a threat we ignore at our peril.

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