UKIP – a credible threat to Tories?

UKIP election propaganda
UKIP election propaganda (Photo credit: mia!)

With discontent for David Cameron growing, right-wing commentators are now worried about UKIP outflanking the Tories on the right, and appealing to the traditional Tory voter. Simon Heffer writes in the Mail:

“Ukip, whose policies bear an astonishing resemblance to the Tory party’s when Mrs Thatcher ran it, are level with the Lib Dems in the opinion polls. I suspect they will soon overtake them. And I also suspect that every vote gained by Ukip is one lost by the Conservatives.”

Iain Martin writes in the Telegraph:

“Ukip’s vote is not concentrated in ways that enables it to win seats in a first past the post election system. And, say its critics, the party is not yet well-organised enough to pose a serious threat to the Tories. But the current rise of Ukip obviously matters. Tim Bale is making a common psephological error: just because something has not happened in the past does not mean that it won’t at some point in the future.

Ukip scored 11 per cent in one poll last weekend. Even if that turns out to be a rogue finding, Nigel Farage’s troops have been polling 7 per cent recently. Plenty of Conservatives, disgruntled with Cameron and the coalition, are currently flirting with the possibility of voting Ukip at future elections, even just as a protest. There is widespread discontent with the major parties, including amongst the kind of Tory-leaning voters Cameron needs to get back onside.

It is the steady rise of Ukip at UK general elections that should trouble the Tories. In 1997 the party polled just 105,722 votes, but the Referendum Party caused havoc for the Tories with its 811,849 votes. That showed there was a strong Eurosceptic constituency of 900,000+ voters prepared to consider alternatives to the Tories, which Ukip struggled at first to tap into. In 2001 the party moved up to 390,563, but in 2005 it was 605,973 and in 2010 it rose to 919,471. I fail to see how almost a million voters, disproportionately likely to have previously voted Tory, voting Ukip can be anything other than a serious problem for the Conservatives, particularly when Cameron fell short of an overall majority.

The question for Farage is now whether he can maintain the rate of progress of the last decade, by smashing through the million vote mark next time and pushing up towards 1.5m.”

However, the case for UKIP’s support seems overated.

The ever-trusty BBC guide to the election results in 2010 shows UKIP as receiving 920k votes, making them the fourth-largest party with 3.1% share of the vote. However, crucially, and as Nigel Farage has recently mentioned on Newsnight, UKIP are hampered by the FPTP system. In the Buckingham constituency, where Nigel Farage, the most high profile UKIP member, was standing against John Bercow, unpopular with Tories. Given that neither the Lib Dems nor Labour were putting up candidates here, this was arguably the ideal place for UKIP to get a seat. However, Bercow got almost half the votes, and Farage even came in third place (although admittedly some of the other fringe candidates may have taken away his votes).

I think the electoral system is the main factors preventing UKIP taking a significant number of seats. With their proportion of the votes, they would have got about 20 seats in a truly proportional system.

John Rentoul makes two other points in this article. Firstly, UKIP voters are not exclusively ex-Tories:

“And one large point. It is a fallacy to suppose that UKIP is regarded by voters as being a “right-wing” alternative to the Conservative Party. All the research I have seen suggests that UKIP supporters tend to be drawn roughly equally from people who have voted Tory, Labour or not at all before.

For example, a YouGov survey in 2010 (cited in this paper, pdf) reported that 23 per cent of UKIP voters said that they had voted Conservative in 2005 and 17 per cent Labour.”

 This counters the worry for the Conservative Party that UKIP may not actually win seats, but will split the Tory vote (as this Telegraph article suggests).

Furthermore, Rentoul says:

“otherwise likeable Tories such as Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, and Patrick O’Flynn, chief political commentator for the Daily Express, became excited about a Survation opinion poll for the Mail on Sunday, which showed UKIP on an 11 per cent share of the vote, level with the Liberal Democrats.

One small point. Survation is a member of the British Polling Council, but asks different questions from most other companies. Notably, its main voting intention question asks if you would vote “Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, or another party” (with the names of the four parties rotated randomly), whereas none of the other pollsters reminds respondents of UKIP. Survation’s question seems fairer, but the other pollsters have produced more accurate predictions of UKIP’s actual vote. The 11 per cent is likely to be an overstatement, therefore.”

There is also another reason I think UKIP may struggle to break into mainstream politics, although this one is more of a hunch. I think UKIP could find it hard to shake off being associated with the nasty right of the BNP and EDL. It is telling that their ‘About Us’ page stresses in bold “We believe that the government of Britain should be for the people, by the people – all the people, regardless or their creed or colour – of Britain.” It could be that people who support much of their populist rhetoric are put off by their toxicity.

To be clear, although UKIP may well be experiencing a rise in popularity with the Tories looking incompetent and perhaps being too centrist, metropolitan and liberal for some. However, it will take a big leap for UKIP to go beyond being a fringe party to properly challenging the other parties for lots of seats. Right-wing conservatives playing up the threat UKIP poses may be just as much about trying to steer the party to the right.

*edited 16/04/2012 17:36*

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