However the vote turns out, the referendum on Britain’s EU membership on 23 June represents a triumph for Ukip. The issue the party was founded to address – Britain’s membership of the EU – is being put before the whole population. Ukip, along with Eurosceptics in other parties, have been given a once in a generation opportunity to make their case to the British people. A party which just a decade ago barely registered as a footnote in British electoral politics has helped trigger one of the biggest mass discussions Britain’s constitutional and international political arrangements in living memory. Win or lose, that is a major achievement.
This achievement caps a remarkable decade for Ukip. In Westminster elections, its support grew from 600,000 to nearly 4 million from 2005 to 2015. In European Parliament elections, the party rose from 2.7 million and 3rd place in 2004 to 4.4 million and first place in 2014. A party which had virtually no representation in local government as recently as 2012 won over a hundred councillors in three success sets of local elections from 2013. The party which Conservative leader Michael Howard dismissed as “cranks and gadflies” in 2004, and his successor David Cameron derided as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” in 2006 are now firmly established as the third party of English and Welsh politics, and the most successful new entrant in British politics since Labour’s arrival on the scene a century ago. Only the workings of the British electoral system, which severely penalises parties with evenly spread support, have prevented Ukip from having an even bigger impact on the national political scene. Under the proportional representation electoral systems employed in many European countries, Ukip could have 80 or more MPs.
Ukip’s rise represents an unprecedented rejection of politics as usual by the British electorate – or more accurately the English and Welsh electorate (in Scotland, politics has been shaken by a different earthquake). Ukip’s support is clearly drawn in demographic and attitudinal terms: the party does best with ‘left behind’ voters – older white British voters of modest means and few educational qualifications. Ukip’s best performances came in poorer, whiter, economically stagnant areas, often places where traditional industries collapsed years ago and nothing has come to replace them since. Farage’s voters express deep disaffection with traditional politics, which has delivered nothing for them, but strong attachment to British, or more usually English, nationalism and identity. Immigration and the EU have become the twin lightning rods for these voters. Immigrants as both a scapegoat to blame for their marginalised and declining economic and social position and a threat to the traditional identity and values they treasure. The EU as a symbol of the distant, alien and unaccountable political elites who run their lives yet ignore their concerns.
The rise of Ukip reflects fundamental shift in bases of vote choice away from class & economics and towards education, identity & social values. Labour has benefitted from this shift with some groups & in some areas (graduates, ethnic minorities, London and other diverse urban areas). But it has meant steady erosion in party support with other groups & areas (older, white socially conservative non-graduates in traditional Labour strongholds). The underlying divisions in values and identity which have fuelled Ukip (and, at the other end of the spectrum, the Greens) will remain after the EU referendum sound and fury has faded. Two statistics illustrate the lasting challenges Ukip’s rise poses for Labour. The first, illustrated in figure 1, is that Ukip’s rise over three elections has coincided with Labour decline in the same places. In the seats where Ukip have grown least – by less than 7.5 per cent – Labour were stronger in 2015 than in 2005. In the seats where Ukip have grown most – by 13.5 per cent or more – Labour are on average almost eight points below their standing in 2005, when Labour won its last majority. These include seats such as Clacton and Rochester and Strood, where Labour have collapsed to a distant third place in seats they held in the early 2000s.
Figure 1: Conservative and Labour performance 2005-15 by strength of Ukip surge
The second statistic, illustrated in figure 2, is the powerful link between English national identity and 2015 support for both Ukip and Labour. In short, the more English voters feel, the more they incline towards Ukip and away from Labour. Among the 15 per cent of voters who describe themselves as “English, not British”, Labour on 22 per cent fall into third place behind both a dominant Conservative party (48 per cent) and Ukip (24 per cent). This is not simply a matter of Englishness – a whole range of social values are connected to these identity orientation – but it illustrates the power of the new values and identity divides that Ukip has mobilised in England.
Figure 2: National identity and party support in England
The clashes over the referendum may deepen these divides, but it may also weaken Ukip’s ability to mobilise them politically. A remain vote will deepen disaffection among voters anxious about high immigration and loss of British sovereignty. Labour’s consistent – if not always vocal – pro-EU campaign position will be a sore point with such angry voters. However, a remain vote will likely have an even bigger impact on the Conservative party – perhaps triggering a mass departure to Ukip of angry Eurosceptic activists and maybe even triggering defections by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs or MEPs. In addition, a failure to deliver Brexit could trigger a challenge to Nigel Farage’s leadership by internal party critics – the most prominent of whom, such as Douglas Carswell (the party’s only MP) and Neil Hamilton (the leader of the party’s Welsh Assembly group) are former Conservatives. In short, a vote to remain could leave Ukip more dominated by former Conservatives at both elite and grassroots activist level. This, in turn, will make it harder for the party to appeal to disaffected Labour voters who share its agenda.
Ukip and its backers will obviously be happier in the short term if the country votes to leave the EU on June 23rd. But what then? Ukip will have to decide what role to play in the exit negotiations, and what to focus on next. This will most likely trigger as many internal conflicts as a remain vote and absorb the attention and resources of party elites for several years. However, a vote for Brexit is unlikely to resolve the structural problems which drove Ukip support up in the first place, and may make some worse. For example, the older, less skilled workers who find Ukip most attractive may be the hardest hit by any Brexit related economic turmoil.
However, while Ukip, or something like Ukip, looks set to remain on the scene regardless of the referendum result, recent evidence suggests they will struggle to repeat their exceptional 2004-14 surge in the next decade. Evidence from both the 2015 and 2016 election results point to Ukip hitting a ceiling. The party failed to win of its 2015 target seats – the only seat it has was a successful defence by a Conservative defector (Douglas Carswell) with a strong local profile (and he is now semi-detached from the party). The party won less than 30 local council seats this year – its worst showing since 2015 – and has been declining in the BBC “Projected National Share” calculations every year since 2013 (falling from 23 per cent that year to 12 per cent in 2016). Direct ward by ward comparisons highlight the same pattern – Ukip won less votes on average in 2016 than in the same wards a year earlier, despite the issue agenda in 2016 being tailor made for the party. While the party’s breakthrough in Wales was impressive, a comparison with 2015 Westminster voters reveals the same pattern of decline.
In the longer run, Ukip is also on the wrong side of a number of social changes. Its support is concentrated amongst non-graduates, whites, the working class, and social conservatives. All these groups are gradually declining through generational changes – young English voters are far more educated, liberal, ethnically diverse and middle class than their grandparents. The pool Ukip fishes in is shrinking.
Such demographic changes are relentless, but they are also slow. Ukip are likely to be attractive to a large chunk of the English and Welsh electorate for many years. How can Labour respond? To begin with, any response needs to recognise that Ukip are not a transient expression of public anger, or a passing political fad. They reflect deep structural divides in values and outlook in many areas between different segments of the electorate, divides which have changed the way voters perceive the parties and decide between them. These divides are particularly evidenced when we compare the views of the voters Labour has lost to Ukip (and to the Conservatives) and those who are loyalist to the contemporary Labour party, in particular those who have joined or remained as party members under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Survey research by Ian Warren shows that on issues such as immigration, identity, defence and welfare Labour’s members and loyalist voters are often poles apart from its lost and potential voters. This gap is itself a reflection of the same trends which have driven the rise of Ukip – young graduates are attracted by Labour’s cosmopolitan liberal stances on such issues just as older, ‘left behind’ voters are attracted to Ukip by their conservative stances on the same issues. The first step Labour need to make is to recognise the nature and important of this value divide. They are poles apart from their lost voters on these issues – a deep and lasting gap needs to be bridged.
The second step is to recognise that, in a value conflict as deep as this, the views taken by voters on the socially conservative side of the argument are as legitimate as those held on the liberal side, which are vastly more popular among current Labour supporters. Passionate social liberals – thick on the ground in the current Labour membership – are prone to seeing their position as both intellectually enlightened and morally superior. But implying or assuming that voters who take opposing views on these issues are ignorant and intolerant is not a good way to win their sympathy. It frames the discussion as “I’m right, you’re wrong”, and reinforces such voters’ belief that the current Labour party ignores or dismisses their concerns. That is not a sensible strategy with voters who express exceptionally high levels of political disaffection and distrust.
Yet there are also risks if Labour leans too far in the other direction. For example, manifestly insincere displays of patriotic pride, or implausible promises to address cultural concerns about immigration, from people who clearly do not share such values and impulses ring a false note. Ukip leaning voters know their concerns are not shared by socially liberal graduates, so when members of the latter group feign interest it can often look like condescension or pandering.
A better approach may be to recognise and accept the difference in views and values and look for a productive compromise that respects both outlooks. For example, on immigration it will do Labour no good to promise dramatic cuts to immigrant numbers if the referendum vote is to remain. Voters know such cuts are not possible within the EU, and they know that claims from liberal graduates to want to deliver big cuts are insincere – not least because many liberal activists will invariably attack such pledges as pandering to xenophobia. Instead of insincere promises and undeliverable policies, Labour should focus on explaining their own position on the positives of immigration, while looking for compromises which credibly address the pressures associated with it. They should set out honestly what they feel can and cannot be done to address the issue, and what they feel should and should not be done. An honest discussion with voters about what is actually feasible on immigration, and what it as a party wants to do, will never win round all immigration sceptics but it is at least consistent and principled. If some voters conclude Labour’s perspective is wrong for them, perhaps that is a price worth paying to win back broader credibility.
A second way Labour could win back credibility is by broadening its debate about representation. Labour has made great strides in improving ethnic minority and female representation at elite level, and is justly proud of this. Yet working class representation has collapsed, and the Westminster party is increasingly dominated by university graduates, even though more than half of the electorate never attended university. This generates a particular credibility problem on the new social issues, as education is the strongest predictor of views on these – university graduates tend very strongly to liberal views, non-graduates tend to conservative stances. University is also increasingly the gateway to social status, prosperity and social mobility. Voters are well aware of the class and education deficit in representation, and it affects their behaviour: research by Oliver Heath has shown that working class voters regard Labour as more credibly left wing and are more willing to vote for it when it fields more working class candidates nationally and locally. It is telling that three of the most credible voices in the EU debate – Nigel Farage, Alan Johnson and Sir John Major – all left school at 16 or earlier.
Fielding candidates who share the background and life experiences of’ left behind’ voters would be a powerful way to rebuild trust and credibility with such voters. Politicians who have faced the same economic struggles will have more authenticity communicating with such voters, and that authenticity may also help them bridge the gaps on social issues where Labour has diverged from these voters’ social conservatism. Serious, co-ordinated and resourced action to recruit more working class and non-university candidates at local and national level would also send a clear message to ‘left behind’ voters that the party values their perspective and wants to ensure they are properly represented in the corridors of power. Such action would also be in keeping with the oldest traditions of the party itself, which was founded to provide a political voice for the working class and would help to draw contrasts with a more middle class UKIP, particularly if the latter experiences an influx of Conservative defectors post referendum.
The party could also rebuild bridges with disaffected Ukip voters by delivering tangible results through effective local government. Labour has a strong presence in local government, with control of many large cities, and therefore stands to gain from the new devolution of powers to city regions. The party should fully exploit the powers of both big devolved administrations such as London and Greater Manchester and smaller local government authorities to show disaffected and distrustful ‘left behind’ voters that they can deliver meaningful improvements in their lives. The focus should be on clear and regular two way communication with such voters to establish priorities and deliver on them. Ukip’s growing presence in local government provides an opportunity for Labour to draw contrasts, as many of the initial wave of Ukip councillors have proved rather ineffective at governing. Ukip groups in Basildon, Tendring and Thanet have split acrimoniously – the last costing the party control of the council, while numerous Ukip councillors have resigned or been driven out by scandal. Labour should point to these disappointments as evidence that Ukip are much less good at resolving problems than voicing them.
These are modest suggestions, and I do not claim they represent a complete strategy for Labour to compete with Ukip, nor that they will be sufficient to win back the voters the party is losing. Many more ideas and initiatives will be needed. Although there are reasons to think Ukip have hit a ceiling for now, and do not present immediate threats to many incumbent Labour MPs, Labour cannot afford to be complacent. Social democratic parties are in an unprecedented decade long slump all over Europe, and competition from populist radical right parties are one of the factors in this. An ability to reconnect with the disaffected voters flirting with Ukip will be essential if Labour is to rebuild the broad coalitions necessary for a governing majority. Ukip may have peaked, but Ukip politics are not going away.