Garvan Walshe / Mar 2017
Read the right wing British press and be forgiven for thinking Britain is in the middle of a mass popular uprising. The "people" are rising up against the metropolitan liberal elite who have so long patronised them and ignored their "legitimate concerns" about immigration and diversity, silenced them out of "political correctness" and shackled them to the "corpse" that the EU economy is alleged to be.
The metropolitans (hardly the elite since they're no longer in power) are so shell-shocked by what they fear is the inevitable rise in populism they've stopped defending their own principles. We must "listen" to the "left behind" , they say. By which they don't mean "listen" in the normal sense of the world, but "concede."
In England at least, the cause for this concession was the rise of UKIP, and their persistently strong showing in national opinion polls. UKIP made plain its intention to go after the white working class, peeling away from Labour, now on its second north London leader utterly unable to relate to them. The Conservatives have done the same, pointing to UKIP's rise as a reason to hold and lose the EU referendum.
These two by elections in the remote North Western seat of Copeland, and the midlands post industrial Stoke Central show clearly that UKIP lacks the discipline (its candidate and leader turned out to be a fantasist, one of its activists was caught relieving himself in a voter's garden) required to win parliamentary elections.
And even if the party could put together a decent electoral machine, the evidence shows it is much further from a breakthrough than the more febrile commentary suggests.
Under Britain's first past the post system, it's natural to worry about who's second. When party identity was stable, based mostly on social class and changes in affiliation small, the main threat did indeed come from second place. Applying those old fashioned assumptions leads to the simplistic conclusion that Labour and Tories are, in the main, under threat from the purple populists.
At the last general election in 2015, UKIP came second to the Conservatives and Labour in seats across the country, but being second isn't all that counts. How far back you are matters. Calculations conducted by my firm, Brexit Analytics, show that the UKIP threat, while in theory large, is quite distant. If the Tories lose votes, their seats fall to the Lib Dems before UKIP. If there were a 10 per cent swing to the Lib Dems, 35 seats would fall to the Lib Dems, while a 10 per dent swing to UKIP would only lose the Conservatives 7. Labour is in a more difficult situation. The party finds itself in a pincer, losing votes to the Lib Dems and UKIP at the same time.
The death of Sir Gerald Kaufman, who held the seat of Manchester Gorton, puts Labour in another bind. This strongly ethnic minority and student constituency has been gentrifying, and voted heavily to remain at the last election. Corbyn's strong support for the Palestinian cause would normally have been expected to see his candidate through but Europe will trump that for many voters, while the white working class vote drifts away. The Lib Dems could be in a position to spring another surprise. Indeed south Manchester could easily become something of a heartland for them. Withington, Cheadle and Hazel Grove (the latter both narrowly Tory) and, as an outside chance solidly Tory but Remain leaning Altrincham and Sale West could be vulnerable.
The real reason UKIP is being held up as a threat is that people inside the Tory and Labour parties agree with them. The Tory side is easy to explain: major parts of the government's programme, most obviously a hard Brexit, and restrictions on immigration, are UKIP policy. On the Labour side there are some MP's who have always wanted to restrict immigration, falsely believing it harms their working class voters. To these can be added others, like Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds, with reasons to worry about leave voting constituents but who panicked after the referendum defeat.
All this opens an opportunity for the Lib Dems, which have been recording huge increases in support in by-elections. Though they are still doing relatively badly in the national polls, they are close second to the conservatives in 20 or so seats, and well placed to threaten Labour in urban areas where liberal and pro-European attitudes are strongest.
Tories and Labour have, as a result of exaggerating the UKIP threat, convinced themselves the country had moved decisively in a nationalist direction rather than being essentially evenly split. This will reconfigure the Tory party, as it wins middle income small towns previously held by Labour, but loses once more affluent suburbs that deserted it in 1997, and which David Cameron was able to win back. The reconfiguration could prove fatal to Labour however, if its urban middle class electorate deserts the party over Jeremy Corbyn's pro Brexit position, while its traditional working class base falls away over Corbyn.
The UKIP threat may be exaggerated, but its effects will reconfigure British politics.