Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin have got a new book, Revolt on the Rightout later this week looking at UKIP’s growth and based on extensive polling. This post isn’t about the book as such – I haven’t read it yet – but about the debate that has sprung up in advance of it about who UKIP take support from, who they are a threat too. Rob and Matt’s argument is essentially that UKIP are a threat to Labour (and it’s a claim that UKIP themselves are keen to jump upon for obvious electoral reasons), others have pointed to them being mainly a threat to the Conservatives. To a large extent, I think the apparant argument is often people just answering slightly different questions.
At one level who UKIP are a threat to is an easily answered question just by looking who who their current supporters voted for at the last general election. The answer is straightforward – they disproportionately hurt the Conservatives. In February’s YouGov polling data about 45% of the UKIP vote was made up of former Conservatives, the other 55% was evenly split between former Labour voters, former Lib Dems, existing UKIP and former non-voters. These figures are broadly consistent with other polling – for example, in Lord Ashcroft’s last large poll 43% of UKIP supporters voted Tory last time, the other 57% were split between Lib Dems, existing UKIP, non-voters and Labour. Generally speaking, while the majority of UKIP support is not former Tories, former Tories make up easily their largest single chunk of support, and they take more votes from 2010 Tories than from any other single source.
A second, more nuanced, way of asking the question is to look at who UKIP are taking support from now. It’s not necessarily the party they voted for last time – after all, these are voters who are presumably unhappy with whichever party they were previously supporting. Between March 2012 and February 2013 Labour were pretty consistently polling in the low 40s, more recently their support has averaged around 38. The decline in Labour support has not been accompanied by much of a rise in Conservative support, rather it is UKIP who have gained. We saw the same pattern in local elections in 2013, compared to 2012 the topline changes were that Labour went down, UKIP went up. The explanation for this is not necessarily as simple as people switching directly from Labour to UKIP, there is a lot of churn under polling figures and there could be people moving in and out of “don’t knows”, people moving from Con to UKIP and Lab to Con and so on. However, it does raise the possibility that while UKIP are not winning over many people who voted Labour in 2010, they are winning over people who earlier in this Parliament were saying they might vote Labour.
The third way of looking at UKIP support is to look at the demographics of the people who support them, and here we come to the crux of what Matt and Rob have written about. UKIP’s supporters tend to be older, ill-educated, strongly working class; indeed, their support is more dominated by working class voters than even Labour. In terms of attitude they are not, as I’ve written many times, driven mainly by Europe despite the roots of UKIP – their support is based more on anti-immigration feeling, anti-establishment feeling and a general hostility towards the way Britain has changed in recent years. Taken on it’s own merits this is not a description of a movement or party that should solely worry the Conservatives, indeed, on social class alone it should be a party that is a threat to the Labour party’s base of working class support, especially in the North where the Conservative party’s long term difficulties in attracting working class support mean that there is often a vacancy for an effective opposition to the Labour party.
And yet, if we go back to the first of the three measures, in practice UKIP support so far has drawn far more support from former Conservatives than from former Labour voters. The most interesting question to me is why is that? UKIP do seem to be able to pick up working class support, there is certainly a reservoir of anti-immigration and anti-politician feeling for them to draw upon amongst Labour supporters; there is clearly potential for them to get support from Labour too… and yet they have made only modest inroads there. I’m sure people can come up with all sorts of plausible explanations (UKIP’s party image? Labour’s position as the opposition? Stronger party identification with the Labour party? Failure of UKIP to campaign in Labour areas? Lower turnout amongst those working class groups most amenable to UKIP’s message?) but it’s a question that remains open. The answer is something that could be very instructive for UKIP in building their support and Labour in defending theirs (particularly in the event of a Labour government).