UKIP’s overall third place in votes in the 2015 general election is terrible news.
That one-in-eight voters chose a party, which has thrived in a culture of anti-politics and disillusion by wrapping an ill-defined core of neo-liberal policies in bright anti-immigration colours, is a tragi-comic symptom of the awfulness of British political culture.
The left should not overestimate the significance of UKIP’s reactionary bile. In many ways it remains an external faction of the Conservative right harking back to a semi-imagined Thatcherite-Conservative heyday. Its success was limited. That UKIP won only one seat is not simply because of the unfairness of the British electoral system, but because they won only 12.6 per cent of the vote.
Although much has been made of UKIP coming second in 120 seats, in nearly all of these seats they were a poor second. A five percent swing to UKIP would represent a further massive jump in their popularity but would deliver them only two more seats. A 10 per cent swing would be needed for them to win anything more.
Many Labour right-wingers have argued that UKIP has attracted many one-time Labour voters who will need to be won back for Labour. This is often allied with a “Blue Labour” view that Labour needs to copy UKIP’s and the Conservatives’ anti-immigration policies, along with New Labour themes of being the party of business and aspiration. But the view that UKIP has eaten into Labour’s vote has little basis in reality.
UKIP’s success in the 2015 election has not been at the expense of Labour’s 2010 vote, nor did it win a large section of the collapsed Lib Dem vote that might have otherwise gone to Labour. Of course, this has to be understood in the context of Labour doing badly in the 2010 election when it won only 29 per cent of the vote, and in 2015 Labour failing to significantly improve on that result. Putting Scotland to one side, in England and Wales Labour managed only to improve its vote by 3.5 per cent, despite the Lib Dems losing two-thirds of their vote. But UKIP are not the reason why Labour did not do better.
To get to grips with what happened in the election it is necessary to look at the circulation of votes between the parties, particularly from which parties UKIP won votes. There are no definitive figures for this but opinion poll and analytical data sheds some light on this.
In order to understand the circulation of votes, it helps to consider a group of 100 people. In the 2010 election 36 would have voted Conservative, 29 Labour, 23 Lib Dem and 3 UKIP. In 2015, 37 voted Conservative, 30 Labour, 8 Lib Dem and 13 UKIP. (This ignores changes in turnout, although voters who had not voted in recent elections were probably an important constituent of UKIP’s vote).
Where did UKIP’s votes come from? The evidence is that of their 10 new votes won in 2015, between 3 and 5 came from the Conservatives, 2 or 3 from Lib Dems, 2 or 3 from other parties (primarily the BNP) and only 1 or 2 from Labour. Labour probably lost more votes to the Conservatives than to UKIP, but made this up by gaining 6 of the 23 people who voted for Lib Dems in 2010. Thus, nationally, it would appear Labour is leaking a few votes to UKIP, not haemorrhaging support.
Nor is it the case, as is often suggested, that UKIP won votes from Labour in their “northern heartlands”. I have looked in detail at one Labour “heartland” area, the 28 seats in the north east. While it is certainly true that UKIP did well across the region, averaging 17 per cent of the votes, this was not at the expense of Labour which increased its average vote across the region from 44 per cent in 2010 to 48 percent in 2015.
By using a model based on the 2010 result in individual seats and the above circulation of votes, it is possible to see whether the votes in individual seats changed in different ways to what is happening nationally. This shows that Labour won more votes than the national circulation of votes would predict. Where UKIP did better than expected, Labour tended to do better too and to a much greater extent, probably because both parties benefitted from the collapse of a large LibDem vote. The strong correlation with UKIP doing better was with the Conservatives performing worse than expected (although the Conservatives increased their vote a little in the north east, they did not benefit from the collapse in the Lib Dem vote as they did elsewhere). In short, UKIP’s success in the north east is at the expense of the Conservatives.
To deepen this picture I looked at UKIP’s top twenty second-place seats. The picture here is that the Conservatives won less votes than the circulation of votes nationally would suggest across most of these seats and lost out particularly badly to UKIP in safe Labour seats. Labour, on the other hand was largely unaffected by UKIP in seats they held (with the odd exception, notably Hartlepool) but lost votes in Conservative held seats. Labour had only moderate loses to UKIP in areas where it was already weak.
Furthermore, the weakness of the UKIP vote is shown by the impact of Conservative campaigning. Not only does it appear that the Conservatives won waverers back from UKIP late in the campaign with its Labour-SNP “coalition of chaos message”, but in its key marginals where the party poured in huge resources and effort, the Conservatives were largely successful at minimising the votes they lost to UKIP.
What are we to understand from this? As I argued in a review of Ford and Goodwin’s book on UKIP, Revolt on the Right (see Solidarity 324) just because UKIP’s electoral base is working class (and remained so in the 2015 general election), this does not imply that the people who vote for UKIP are “Labour left-behinds.” The evidence from Labour seats in the north east suggests that these are people who have previously voted Conservative or in some cases BNP and to a lesser extent Lib Dem (it is also likely that some of these people have not voted for any party in the recent past).
It is likely that some of these people voted for the Blair’s New Labour in 1997 but subsequently peeled off. It is a fair guess that these voters do not identify with the labour movement and feel little working class solidarity, rather they see themselves as English and hard-done by. At the same time, they believe they are badly represented by the Conservatives, and probably not only on the issues of immigration and Europe.
The overall context of this is a long-term decline in Labour’s vote. With the exception of the Blair years, Labour’s vote has not been above 35 per cent since 1979. The political defeat of the Labour Party after 1979 was followed by the labour movement’s industrial defeat in the first half of the 1980s. The New Labour project put Labour back in power not through reversing these defeats, but by accepting them. Blair appealed to voters at least in part convinced by Thatcherism on that basis. Gradually in the elections in 2001, 2005 and 2010 this electoral bloc disintegrated. Those who talk of the need to win UKIP voters “back” to Labour are, in many instances, looking to rebuild this bloc.
It is possible that UKIP fortunes will fade, not only since their tendency to in-fighting will re-emerge but because the Cameron’s programme of “blue collar Conservatism” is tailor-made to appeal to UKIP voters. For the left, UKIP is part of the problem of diminished and battered working class consciousness.
Only through building the struggles and self-confidence of the working class can working-class politics be rebuilt in Britain.
• More on the sources, statistics and modelling behind this article here