Like its prequel, Revolt on the Right with which it shares an author in Matthew Goodwin. Ukip: inside the campaign to redraw the map of British politics wisely mixes narrative and statistical political analysis.
Ukip’s story is packed full of lively characters, dramatic events and colourful anecdotes. The risk with the form of political analysis which simply strings them together into one narrative is that the statistical evidence does not always point in the same direction.
Most notably, narrative political accounts are drawn like moths to the flame of general election campaigns, whilst more rigorous analysis of evidence usually shows that the results of elections are all but settled well in advance of those few apparently dramatic weeks.
In Ukip: inside the campaign, Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo, however, get the best of both worlds with a text that is full of the lively events, underpinned by more rigorous statistical analysis of research data which is then detailed in the appendixes. (It also has some excellent footnotes.)
Moreover, by starting this book in early 2014 and frequently darting back out of chronology to earlier events, even the chronology avoids the moth trap of elections.
Can the British Election Study be trusted?
One word of caution applies about the apparently rigorous statistical evidence. Much of it is based on the British Election Study (BES) and, as with other polling done for the 2015 election, the BES surveys also got the result badly wrong save for the very slow and extensive face to face post-election survey.
However it is the earlier – and known to be faulty – waves of research which Goodwin and Milazzo repeatedly rely on. In doing this they are doing what the rest of the British political science community (save for some barbs from Phil Cowley) are doing. As the BES provides numbers and as they need numbers for their work, the BES gets used.
It would have been more reassuring, however, to have had an explicit discussion of the BES’s now known limitations – or even an explanation of adjustments therefore made to the BES data. (Though to be fair, in correspondence the authors have provided assurances about how they’ve cross-checked their usage of BES data.)
Sources of Ukip support
Even allowing for that, Goodwin and Milazzo’s evidence is solid that Ukip’s source of support is much more than ‘ex-Conservatives’. In particular a large part of it has come from Labour’s traditionally loyal white working class vote, first disillusioned and then starting to flake away when Labour was in power 1997-2010. Another source of Ukip support has been former Conservative voters who in a longer-term perspective are floating voters – and so just the sort of people Labour would need to win over to win a general election but instead switched in significant numbers to Ukip. In other words, Ukip has both taken support away from Labour and also taken support from those Labour needs to win over.
Behind all that lies Ukip’s move from its roots in anti-Europeanism to an appeal based on hostility to immigration. It was a move towards a more general appeal to ‘left behind’ voters, or as Peter Kellner quipped once voters for whom the global race had been run, and lost.
“Ukip was putting down deeper roots in left-behind communities – where there are older, comparatively unskilled, and heavily white populations, which often grapple with entrenched deprivation, and where people are more likely to feel threatened by the dramatic cultural changes that are sweeping across Britain,” Goodwin and Milazzo write.
That move was, as Ukip: inside the campaign documents, often hindered by controversies over the views of members which were highlighted by the press and also by the weakness of Ukip’s ground operation.
It was only in the Clacton by-election triggered by the defection to it of Douglas Carswell that the party started using a database to systematically log campaign information about voters for example. Then during the general election, its campaign organisation was crippled by nearly all the key figures also being general election candidates and often absent from party HQ.
Things were then made even worse by some major personality conflicts within the small team, especially over Tory MP turned Ukip MP Douglas Carswell (the authors have clearly spoken to both pro and anti Carswell camps in Ukip) and over Nigel Farage’s advisor Raheem Kassam. He was “an utter disaster” Suzanne Evans, the prime author of the manifesto, is quoted as saying.
Fewer gems are recorded in the book from other parties and how they tried to deal with Ukip, although amongst the notable exceptions are the details given of how Labour, and in particular it appears its Director of Strategy and Planning, Greg Beales, had exchanges which fizzled out over a possible seats deal and other mutual assistance in order to help Ukip takes seats off the Conservatives: “right up until the election, Ukip’s head of campaigns would continue to talk to some of those at the heart of the Labour camp”.
Something else that also went on right up until the start of the campaign – and even during it – was the internal Ukip disputes over whether to major on a ‘core votes’ strategy with a hard line on immigration or whether to try to broaden Ukip’s appeal by softening the message on immigration and talking more about other issues.
Again, this is well documented in what is a good book, blemished by the uncaveated reliance on the problematic British Election Study data but with only the rare typo or small factual error that I noticed. The most significant of the latter I noticed is the account of how expenditure in constituencies is controlled during elections which omits the huge sums that can be sent under the guise of national limits. That is more than made up for by its comprehensive coverage and the occasional gem of detail, such as how withdrawal from the EU was nearly left of Ukip’s general election pledge card by mistake (!).
The weakest, or at least most contentious, part of the book is the conclusion that Ukip has “entrenched itself as a serious force” in British politics. The problem with the conclusion is that is is based on only a very narrow consideration of the evidence.
Much other relevant evidence is not evaluated before coming to this conclusion. Missing are questions such as has Ukip acquired the organisational strength to prosper? Does the relative decline in Ukip’s fortunes in local elections (2015 was worse than 2014 which in turn was worse than 2013 when you make like-for-like vote share comparisons) mean its bubble has already burst? Does the sector of voters Ukip appeals to provide it with a springboard for long-term success or it is a cul-de-sac with too many voters really disliking it and not enough geographic concentration of support?
Without asking and answering those questions first, the conclusion of the authors is rather premature. Perhaps if you work through them you will then come to the same conclusion even so – but it is something the reader has to do for mostly for themselves for the book only briefly touches on one of them – the question of how Ukip’s rise has also seen more and more voters strongly dislike it – in the final chapter.
That said, you are certainly in a better position to predict Ukip’s future after having read this comprehensive, clear and engaging book. It’s a must read for people wanting to understand the modern state of British politics.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Flying Free, Nigel Farage’s account of his own life.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.