05 May 2013

The UK Independence Party and the reactionary majority

(Just for some explanation for starters... I never did finish that Mrs T post because the whole death and funeral thing became rather a media circus and in the end I was just glad it was all over. So there probably won't be a "Part 2" to that post. Sorry about that. )

The big news this week is the rise of UKIP to a major player in local government, going from 8 to 147 councillors in the local elections (held mainly in the predominately Tory "shire counties"). The Tories lost 335 seats which was poor, although not disastrously so for a governing party. Labour won 291 seats which was good but not spectacular (see Luke Akehurst on LabourList for a good summary of the results from a strategic Labour perspective). The Fib Dems, like the Tories, performed badly but not catastrophically. The Green Party gained 5 seats for a total of 22 - steady if unspectacular progress, including 2 very good wins in Essex, which was very pleasing. I was also pleased to see gains for Mebyon Kernow and the Old Liberals (that classic "70s washing powder" logo for the Liberal Party is the best thing in British politics today, without a doubt).

The good professors Rallings and Thrasher at Plymouth University (sounds like a classic comedy double act) have worked out a projected national vote share based on the county council election results. Now, some caveats to this:

(a) it's hard to tell much about the areas where elections didn't take place - most of Wales, all of Scotland, and most of the English cities and urban areas - from the county results, so it's not clear how accurate a national picture this is;
(b) local turnout is almost always much lower than general election turnout (unless you have local and general elections on the same day) so there are a huge number of people who will be involved in a general election who simply don't take part in the locals, making extrapolation to a general election vote difficult;
(c) people may be voting on different issues locally to nationally;
(d) the UKIP surge makes things even more unpredictable than usual because there is very little previous data to go on.

Anyway with that in mind, Rallings and Thrasher suggest vote shares as follows:
Labour - 29%
Tories - 25%
UKIP - 23%
Fib Dems - 14%
Other - 9%

Feeding these into the election calculator at UK Polling Report produces a Labour majority of 20 which, oddly enough, is roundabout my gut feeling for the outcome of the next election: Labour with a small, but workable, majority. Having said that, the UK Polling Report calculator isn't much good for these purposes as it doesn't even allow disaggregation of "Other" into UKIP plus smaller parties.

Can UKIP manage 23% at a general election? I doubt it, although even 10% - a far more achievable goal - would most likely make a huge difference compared with 3.1% which was what they scored in 2010. Looking at the political situation now one gets the feeling that a huge proportion of the electorate is hacked off, and likely to stay hacked off for years, if not decades. UKIP's strength is that it can do that peculiarly English combination of Colonel Blimp authoritarianism, anti-Europeanism and smoking-room libertarianism better than the right wing of the Tory party can. And in Nigel Farage, it has the most articulate of the 4 main party leaders. Yes the manifesto isn't that coherent; yes, some of the candidates are questionable. But then, much of the same critique could be levelled at the other parties - and they lack the excitement generated by Farage.

The key question for the outcome of the next election, as well as how high the UKIP vote share can go, is how much of their vote comes from the Tories compared with Labour. Looking at today's YouGov poll - which shows UKIP on 12% - their support comprises 19% of the people who voted Tory last time (about 7% of all voters on my calculations), 5% of the people who voted Labour last time (about 1.5%) and 8% of the people who voted Lib Dem (about 1.5%). That makes 10%, so presumably the other 2% of support is people who voted UKIP last time (or didn't vote at all). In other words Tory switchers to UKIP are outnumbering Labour switchers to UKIP by almost 5 to 1. This pattern of UKIP support makes it much, much easier for Labour to come out ahead of the Tories in the general election. Ed could secure a majority with a vote share somewhere in the low 30s.

Of course, this would be an artefact of a truly ludicrous electoral system rather than a vote of confidence in the Labour Party. If Labour won an overall majority with (say) 32% of the vote - equal to its 1987 vote share under Neil Kinnock, when the Tories had a majority of over 100 - does anyone think the country would be stable? Does anyone think the right would take that as a legitimate result? I think the Powers That Be would foment some kind of uprising and take control by force.

The UKIP surge, on the face of it, means that rather than the Polly Toynbee-esque "progressive majority" in UK politics, there is actually a reactionary majority - and it's growing. If we take the latest YouGov poll and optimistically assume that Labour's 40% plus 2% for the Greens is the "progressive vote", then the right-wing vote comprises 30% Tory plus 12% UKIP plus 11% Fib Dems - that's 53% for hard-right politics, right there. Staring You In The Face. It's true that some people who are voting UKIP may actually be hard left on certain issues; for example UKIP claims it's going to massively increase spending on local services while cutting taxes, and it may be that some people are voting for the spending increase part of that equation (despite the fact the policy is totally incoherent). But Farage, of course, is hard right (although not fascist IMHO).

So, UKIP: potentially a shot in the arm for Ed Miliband's electoral chances in the short run, but in the longer run a harbinger of a very nasty shift in UK politics to something much more right wing than we have seen at any point in the univeral suffrage era. Centered around three planks: opposition to immigration, opposition to the EU, and a Tea Party-esque dislike of the "Westminster bubble". Be Very Afraid.

One last point: if Labour does get in on 32% or something not much more than that, Tories are going to be ruing the day they campaigned against AV in 2011. AV would have contained the UKIP threat right there, as the majority of UKIP voters would have had Tory as second preference.