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  • Alan Martin

On the Tories and their Ukip dilemma


As someone who routinely nerds out about politics, it would be remiss of me to not take a few minutes to write something about the local election results which non-biased Nigel Farage described as a ‘game changer’. Ukip averaged 25% of the vote, and took 140 council seats with local election leaflets that promised all kinds of things that are, um, beyond the scope of what councillors can actually do.

As someone who follows reporting from all sides of the political spectrum, I see quite a few calls from the right wing press urging The Conservatives to push rightwards to welcome back the Ukip lost sheep to the The Tory fold, and while I’d actually quite enjoy watching the British right fragment in the way the left did in the 80s, I’m going to offer some home truths now:

1) If you tack right, you lose the swing voters you need to win

It’s a balancing act, being a mainstream political party, which is why we’ve seen such triangulation between the three main parties for the last 20 years. Because of our First Past the Post System, voters have to pick the least unpleasant of their local choices likely to win, meaning that to stand the best chance, your mainstream party needs to be slightly to the left/right of their nearest opposition in order to soak up the most voters. It’s cynical, and I dislike it (which is why I was one of those folks who actually went out and voted for AV), but it’s the truth. There’s a brilliant blog post about that (and many other things) here, but here’s the pertinent extract:

Labour, of course, weren’t the only ones affected by their positional shift. As the party of power, they dragged the Lib Dems to the right too, because first-past-the-post politics essentially works like The Price Is Right – the most profitable spot to occupy is the one that’s the smallest possible discernible margin away from the other guy. If someone’s guessed a price of £500 for a telly and you think the real price is £300, you don’t say £300 and risk his guess being closer than yours if the answer was (say) £405 – you say “£499” and to hell with the boos of the audience (read: your core support). The Lib Dems only needed to be a little to the left of Labour in order to try to capture their disgruntled voters, so they shuffled along to the right too, as close as they could get to New Labour (and therefore the Tories) without appearing to be identical.

Right wing Tories like to claim Cameron didn’t win the last election because he alienated people by being pro-green issues, soft on crime with his whole 'hug a hoody’ rhetoric, and generally a bit more liberal. In reality, the fact he couldn’t beat a massively unpopular and tired looking Labour Party suggests that his modernisation agenda didn’t get far enough and he couldn’t quite scrub away 'the nasty party’ image to absorb their disillusioned voters.

An In-Out EU referendum won’t fix that: counter intuitively, polling suggests that even Ukip voters don’t care that much about the EU.

2) A Ukip vote is often an anti-politics vote

Possibly as a reaction to the aforementioned triangulation, where the common wisdom is that all parties are the same (you could fit a tank between Foot and Thatcher’s idealogical differences, compared to the sliver of light between Blair and Cameron), lots of voters use local elections to flip the bird at Westminster.

“Ah, but its not been for Ukip before, so the tide must be turning!”

Well, no, not necessarily: historically, the Liberal Democrats have done pretty well at byelections and locally, being the party of opposition that was untainted by government policy. Now the Lib Dems have their hands properly dirty, they’re not getting the votes anymore (In the South Shields byelection, held the same day, they lost their deposit, finished behind the BNP and only just ahead of the Monster Raving Looney Party candidate). If you don’t like the look of Labour, who are you going to vote for that will likely show up well in the polls and look suitably protesty? Hello Ukip. Let’s not forget the tagline they used in the last General Election:

So for reasons 1 and 2, copying Ukip policies would be disastrous for the Tories, and would appeal to very few voters while alienating many. Moderate Tories and swing voters won’t like the change, while the anti-politics protest voters will be rightly cynical that they’re genuine. See the Republicans in the US reaching out to the Tea Party movement for the electoral cul-de-sac this heads towards.

3) Local elections aren’t the same as Westminster elections

The BBC has a piece on the history of mid-term local elections and what happened next. Interestingly, the Lib Dems attract around 25% of the vote in the locals before they entered government, which is exactly where Ukip landed. Now I’m not suggesting the Lib Dem voters all climbed on the Farage bandwagon, as we know that Ukip attracts votes from all parties, as well as non voters (though disproportionately from the Tories, I should add), but the point here is what happened next: No Lib Dem breakthrough at the election.

When it came to the vote, our rather undemocratic system meant that left leaning voters held their nose and voted Labour, rather than risking letting the Tories back in. Both Labour and the Tories have played off the fear that voting for a third party will see the others winning out in the past, and you can bet they’ll do it again (though personally I’m looking forward to any political canvaser who visits mine telling me that, because I’ll inform them they should have backed AV then. Hah.)

A 25% share of the vote, even assuming they could hold onto that which as we’ve seen above, protest parties seldom manage in Westminster elections would get them very few seats. A Rallings and Thrasher projection published today based on the local turnout got them a grand total of… zero seats, due to the First Past the Post system, and the reasonably even spread of Ukip supporters throughout the country (that is to say they don’t really have strongholds, as such). I actually suspect they will get between 1 and 5 seats at the 2015 election - I’m reasonably sure Farage will get elected with his new resident interviewee position on BBC current affairs programmes, provided he doesn’t make the mistake of standing against the Speaker again.

There is, however, a quite legitimate fear the Tories have that Ukip will eat into their support in key marginals, allowing Labour MPs to win in areas where combined Ukip and Conservative votes would outnumber them. That’s no reason to copy Ukip: all they’ll do is get a handful of 'kippers back at the expense of horrified centre ground voters: essentially as Tony Blair (who, whatever you think of him, knew a fair bit about winning FPTP elections) insists: elections are won on the centre ground. Let’s overlook the fact that the British centre ground is actually in the centre right, because that’s not going to have changed by 2015. All the Tories need to do is resist the voices trying to appeal to Ukip voters (who in many cases aren’t voting for policy anyway) and go with a thoroughly negative campaign in 2015, depressing though it’ll be. Expect a whole load of 'don’t let Labour back in by voting Ukip, back the side that can win’. It’ll work too, depressing as that is. The question is whether it’ll work enough to grant them a second term, but electoral mathematics states that’s more down to their policies and the economy than what the 'fruitcakes’ next door are up to.

So as Andrew Rawnsley writes in today’s Observer:

The majority of Ukip voters tell pollsters that the Conservatives are their second-choice party. That gives Tories reasonable grounds to hope that many can be won back at a general election, when they will present the choice as a binary one between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. There is only one problem with this strategy. It requires the Tories to keep their heads and holding their nerve is something they find hard to do for two minutes, never mind two years

Relying on the Tory party staying united is possibly an even bolder strategy than trying to appease them, but it’s the only way I can see them being competitive in 2015.

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Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet