The British Election Study held an event today showcasing some of their latest research. It seems to have provoked another round of the familiar discussion of “does the rise of UKIP hurt Labour or the Conservatives more?”. What should perhaps be a bit of an academic question has become a bit of contentious one – perhaps because of the implications for internal party politics (if the rise of UKIP hurts the Conservatives, is it something that is in Labour’s strategic interests to give tacit support to, or is it a threat to them, and what policy implications does that have?). I shall not seek to offer any such advice, but will have my go at the question.
On the face of it, it seems a reasonable assumption that UKIP are more a threat to the Conservatives. There are several very sensible and straightforward reasons for this. The policies that most define UKIP (hostility towards immigration and Britain’s membership of the European Union) are associated with the right of the Conservative party and might be expected to appeal to their voters. Their broader manifesto at the last general election could also be reasonably characterised as being right wing. Politically the party’s roots are clearly within the Conservative family, many of their high profile members are former Conservatives, two Conservative MPs have defected to them and others have been speculated about and more Conservative councillors have defected to them. Looking at it this way, it would make sense if the party was more of a threat to the Conservatives.
The “worse for the Tories” school of thought also relies strongly upon current voting intention data. People who currently tell pollsters that they would support UKIP are disproportionately made up of people who voted Conservative in 2010. It would be wrong to say that the majority of UKIP support comes from the Tories (it tends to be around 40-45%), but former Tories make up the largest single chunk of that support, the rest gathered from smaller groups of former Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP or other supporters or previous non-voters. Finally it is worth considering the pattern of UKIP support at the European election and local election. There has been a concentration of UKIP support in seats along the Eastern coast of England – and below Teeside all but two of these seats (Grimsby and North Norfolk) are held by the Conservative party. With the exception of Great Grimsby, the seats discussed as potential UKIP gains tend to be Conservative ones.
Taken together this seems like a pretty convincing case for UKIP damaging the Conservatives more, but as ever things are a little bit more complicated than that. Here are the reasons why:
First, 2010 is not necessarily a good baseline for judging where support has come from or would otherwise be. Just because people voted Conservative in 2010 and UKIP now, it does not follow that if they weren’t voting UKIP they would jump back to the Tories. Perhaps as a rival opposition party UKIP are picking up anti-government feeling that would otherwise have naturally gone to Labour as the main opposition. Perhaps the people who voted Conservative in 2010 and UKIP now are not dyed in the wool Tories, but people who switched from Lab to Con in 2010 and might have otherwise switched back. The point is it is wrong to assume how people voted in 2010 is a good guide to how they have voted previous to that, or what their voting intention would otherwise be.
If we look at polls over the last couple of years it is clear that Labour have steadily lost support while UKIP have gained it. This is not necessarily evidence that people have switched from one to the other, but it is certainly a possibility. The British Election Study website has an article by Jon Mellon and Geoff Evans looking at the BES data on how current UKIP voters voted in 2010 and how they voted in 2005. Their findings show, as expected, that by far the biggest chunk of current UKIP supported voted Tory in 2010 (about 40%, compared to about 11% for Labour). In 2005 though the picture is somewhat more even – former Tories are still the biggest chunk (about a third), but there are about about twice as many UKIP supporters who voted Labour in 2005 than did in 2010 (about 20%). UKIP are taking former Labour voters, it’s just those voters have taken two elections to make the journey.
Second is the demographics of UKIP support. While UKIP have taken more support from the Conservatives, their support doesn’t resemble that of the Conservative party that much. UKIP support tends to be very white and is disproportionately from older generations (like that of the Conservative party), but unlike the Conservative party it is also strongly working class. This is the core message of Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right and one that is now quite widely recognised – UKIP voters are not retired Tory colonels, but are working class, older men. This is not incompatible with UKIP drawing their support from working-class Tories of course, but the potential risk to the Labour party should be clear: there is a significant body of working class Labour support that is hostile towards immigration and receptive to the sort of message that UKIP are offering, UKIP may not have taken full advantage of it yet, but they show every sign of attempting to do so in the future. There is already some sign of that shift – Peter Kellner’s analysis last month based on recent YouGov polls suggest that the balance of the voters UKIP are picking up is changing, and that amongst more recent UKIP recruits the proportion of former Labour voters is growing.
There lies the third issue – timing. A lot of the discussion around who UKIP hurts seems to fall back upon who people think they’ll hurt come next year’s election. Those arguing that there is a problem for Labour are often looking beyond that to what happens in the future, meaning they are often arguing past each other a little. Personally I would think in particular of what happens in a scenario when we have a Labour government and it runs into the unpopularity that inevitably arrives for all governments sooner or later. If UKIP have positioned themselves as an effective protest vehicle in Labour areas (particularly in Labour’s Northern heartlands where the Conservatives are already extinct and the Lib Dems may become so very soon), UKIP could do very well indeed. Part of the reason that UKIP’s current support comes largely from the Tories is probably because the Tories are the government and they are the party people are protesting against… it will not always be so.
Finally there is the issue of geography. Even if at a national level UKIP are picking up more 2010 Conservative voters than Labour voters this is not necessarily uniform across the country. UKIP may draw support from different groups in different areas, so while they may damage Conservative hopes in some parts of the country, elsewhere there is the potential for them to hurt Labour. Marcus Roberts, Rob Ford and Ian Warren wrote a paper for the Fabians earlier this year, based on Mosiac groups and identifying seats in both groups – areas where UKIP is helping and hurting Labour. There is an opportunity cost here too – the list of seats that UKIP could potentially do well in or win may be dominated by seats that are currently held by the Conservative party, but seats like Thurrock, South Thanet, Great Yarmouth and Waveney were all held by Labour until 2010. By definition, if they are won by UKIP it means they are not being regained by Labour.
In an attempt to tie things up, it is clear that UKIP are currently taking more 2010 support from the Conservatives than Labour, and in that sense they are hurting the Tories more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are hurting just the Conservatives. While it is a good thing for Labour when the Tories lose a vote… it is an opportunity lost if that vote goes to a party other than Labour, especially when it is a voter who might have considered Labour earlier this Parliament or might have voted Labour prior to the 2010 election. There’s also a longer term view – who UKIP are able to appeal to now, with a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in power, is not necessarily a good guide to who they might be able to draw support from in a different political landscape.