Leading the charge for the ‘yes’ camp are several recent large-scale polls (or conglomeration of separate polls) from reputable polling companies. Looking at how people who currently say they’ll vote UKIP behaved in 2010, the pattern seems clear: UKIP’s growth in support predominantly comes from ex-Tories.
However, the ‘no’ camp has its persuasive case, complete with polling too. It’s best put by the excellent new book, Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin.
Using an all too rare combination of interviews and equations, mixing face-to-face research with number crunching of large datasets, Ford and Goodwin argue that UKIP’s support comes predominantly from a white working class vote which feels it has been left behind by social changes and neglected by all the mainstream parties. Older, less skilled, less educated and uncomfortable with the way in which British society is changing – that’s the core of the UKIP appeal, they argue, and what gives UKIP’s support a distinct base which isn’t just about Euro-scepticism:
“Far from being ‘the Conservative party in exile’, UKIP attracts voters from the opposite side of the traditional class divide to the Conservatives … their base is more working class than that of any of the main parties”.
The two contrasting views on the sources of UKIP support are not quite fully opposed to each other, for it’s possible to imagine the sort of working class voter who the Conservatives used to aspire to represent, especially in the days of Enoch Powell or Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps swinging back to Labour off the back of the Poll Tax, the early ’90s recession or Tory sleaze, they may then in turn have voted Tory again in 2010 in reaction to recession and Gordon Brown. Technically ex-Tory (score one for the yes camp), they are also the sort of voter Labour used to appeal to (score one for the no camp).
Moreover, the Ford/Goodwin argument sees different sources of support for UKIP at different points in its history: “The Conservative Party are always a big source of UKIP recruits, but they are not consistently the main source, in fact there is clear evidence that UKIP mobilizes discontent with whichever party is in charge. The party won many recruits from Labour during the Blair and Brown governments, indeed more UKIP voters in this period came from Labour than from the Conservatives … UKIP’s success in mobilising discontent with the government may come at the expense of the main opposition party.” Indeed that’s what happened in the 2013 local elections.
Why all this matters is that one theory suggests the Conservatives will be hit by any UKIP surge in the ballot boxes. But the other theory suggests that Labour could be hit worst, especially where it is the incumbent in local government and particularly on the national level after 2015 if Labour returns to power. Indeed, of the 15 most likely prospects for UKIP’s first Parliamentary seat selected in the book, 12 are held by Labour.
Revolt on the Right is relevant to Lib Dems too
For those interested in the Liberal Democrats, there’s another interesting implication of the book’s thesis. If UKIP is going to prosper as the party for those who don’t like the way British society is moving – those who are instinctively inward looking and resistant to change – then it suggests a political spectrum with UKIP at one end and the Liberal Democrats at the other. Drawbridge up versus drawbridge down, if you will. Is British politics really going to revolve around that axis, though? In some form it’s been the dream of many Lib Dem strategists for many years, but it’s not happened yet as other issues – especially the economy more generally – intrude to disrupt that becoming the way in which voters think about politics. That disruption may too happen to UKIP yet, making its ability to appeal to a core vote of those who feel left behind not the fulcrum on which it can overturn the party political system but rather a curiosity that comes and goes.
Speaking of curiosities that came and went… looking back at some of the books written during the SDP’s rise, subsequent events were often not kind to the predictions and explanations proffered in them. By producing their book now, Ford and Goodwin risk a similar fate – but they have also gifted us a useful guide to trying to understand events. If you want to understand UKIP and hazard your own predictions for its future, read this book.
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Note: a free review copy of Revolt on the Right was sent to me.