The UK Independence Party (UKIP) turns 21 years old this month and has cause to celebrate. The insurgent party won a national election in May and last week enjoyed the most significant coup in its history when Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected to UKIP and announced a forthcoming by-election. Given that his coastal seat of Clacton is UKIP’s most demographically favourable seat in the country, Carswell has almost certainly handed the party its first elected member of parliament.
The events in Clacton will be seen by many as validating one of the oldest myths about UKIP; that it is nothing more than a second home for disgruntled Conservatives. Carswell’s defection will be especially welcomed on the left, where many argue UKIP is dividing the right and clearing the path for Labour’s return to power in 2015. This is dangerously misguided.
To understand why, we can start with Clacton. The seat has the largest concentration of the 'left behind' demographic; older, white, blue-collar voters who lack qualifications, felt excluded from Britain’s economic transformation long before the crisis, are cut adrift from politics, and are intensely anxious over the cultural as well as economic effects of migration.
But as a Conservative-held seat, Clacton is also an outlier. For our book, Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and I ranked all seats according to their demographic receptiveness to UKIP. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, most are in Labour territory where MPs are battling with the same cocktail as Carswell: economic stagnation, unease over migration, an entrenched anti-politics consensus and anxieties over rapid social change. Of the 20 seats most demographically receptive to UKIP, 18 have Labour incumbents. Of the top 50, Labour holds 42. Of course, demography alone is not necessarily destiny. Aside from a receptive local population, UKIP also needs a favourable political context. Unlike Conservative-held seats that are at genuine risk from UKIP, Labour’s heartland seats are currently protected by large majorities.
But a cursory glance at the recent European parliament results reveals the direction of travel. UKIP comfortably won the popular vote in a swath of Labour territory, and talks ambitiously of becoming the main rival to Labour in northern England. It appears to be succeeding. Across 39 local authorities in the northwest, UKIP won more votes than Labour in 13 and finished as its main rival in 23. It is similarly bleak in the northeast; across 12 authorities UKIP won the popular vote in five and finished second to Labour in seven.
Since 2010, UKIP has grown fastest among the groups in which Labour is struggling most: the over-65s, the working-class and those who left education early. UKIP is tearing off this section of the electorate, creating a fundamental divide in British politics between those with the skills, education and resources to adapt, and those who have little and feel intensely angry. This is why some Ukippers talk of a '2020 strategy' and plot further advances under an Ed Miliband-led post-2015 government.
Those who compare the party to earlier attempts to redraw the political map, such as the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, or populist crusaders like the French Poujadists in the 1950s, miss a crucial point. UKIP is anchored in modern Britain’s most socially distinctive support base; it is the most working-class movement since Michael Foot’s Labour Party. Labelling UKIP as 'populist' implies that it appeals across society. It does not. Its strength is concentrated in the 'left behind', who cluster in specific geographical areas. Crucially, this is essential for success under first-past-the-post.
Labour should be under no illusion. UKIP is attracting the Carswells of this world but it is also emerging as the main opposition in many northern heartlands, where it benefits from the toxicity of the Tories, moribund Labour machines that have not had to compete for decades, and the short-sightedness of some close to Ed Miliband who think only of the impact UKIP might have in 2015, and not beyond. Should UKIP’s insurgency continue, not only will it cause a rupture on the centre right, but also bring back into play Labour constituencies that have not been competitive for generations.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times
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