Mel Stride MP is PPS to John Hayes MP, founder of the Deep Blue group of centre-right 2010 Conservative MPs, a former member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and MP for Central Devon.
The Newark result is very good news for all willing a future Conservative Government. Today, the UKIP surge resembles more of a slumped soufflé than the march of the people’s army. This is a good result. Here we are in Government, dealing with some of the greatest economic challenges ever to face our country, a sitting Tory MP having stepped down under a cloud, UKIP having just stormed the EU elections and yet – even with by election shocks the stuff of political folklore – we have won this seat convincingly with 45 per cent of the vote to UKIP’s 26 per cent.
Smashing Nigel Farage’s prediction earlier in the night that he might scrape home by a couple of thousand votes, Robert Jenrick’s majority was 7,403 and he becomes the first Conservative to win a by election under a Conservative Prime Minister in a quarter of a century. Newark may be a sign for UKIP that the great surge is inexorably bending earthward under the gravitational pull of the sobering reality of a coming general election.
That is not, of course, to downplay the threat – many believe that if UKIP were to gain much north of six per cent of the vote in the General Election (last time they polled 3.1 per cent) then a Conservative victory might yet prove illusive. But there are reasons to believe that this six per cent threshold should be set significantly higher.
Firstly, a reasonable proportion of UKIP’s more recent advances have been made up through drawing in those who would not otherwise vote at all it (i.e: voters representing no loss to ourselves) and, secondly, there is increasing evidence that the overall political mix of the UKIP threat is changing in a way that might be more manageable than previously supposed. It is not just that the soufflé is softening, it is that its flavour is changing, too; where previously UKIP has been a party just hacking chunks out of the Right, it is now absorbing an increasing share of votes from right across the political spectrum.
Whilst retaining its position as the populist ‘plague on all your houses’ party it is now showing that this appeal has allowed it to be ever more effective at simultaneously pitching to both sides of the political divide. I suggested this possibility on this site back in February, pointing out that the demographics of UKIP voters are suggestive of the party’s leftward pull – its voter base is in many ways more Labour than Conservative – with their voters on average less well-educated than Tory supporters, and predominantly working class.
They are also less likely to be earning above the average wage compared to the general population. Evidence of this can be found in the Euro elections. While UKIP did well in every region, with the exception of London and Scotland, a closer look at the results shows that they did particularly well in poorer areas dominated by a white working class electorate. In the North of England, they demonstrated the extent of the threat they pose to Labour. The party took 10 out of the 21 seats up for election on Rotherham Council, taking 47 per cent in the seats where its candidates stood. UKIP are also picking up significant support from Labour along the East coast and through Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. They also damaged Labour’s prospects in key marginal seats in the South, including those they need to win to form the next Government. Labour lost control of Thurrock council, with UKIP picking up five seats.
Overall, in the EU and local elections for every three votes that UKIP took from the Conservatives they also took one from Labour and one from the Lib Dems. This balance is clearly unhelpful to us at present, but it might be expected to even-up as UKIP presses harder on the door of disillusioned Labourites (witness their planned manifesto launch in the Labour leader’s own constituency and the certain Labour content in their target seat strategy). This presents us with an opportunity to highlight their political similarities with Labour, a high proportion of whose supporters do not see Ed Miliband as a credible Prime Minister and believe that their natural party trails the Conservatives on the crucial issue of economic competence.
In essence then, UKIP’s voters are often politically far apart from each other – across the board they may be heavily anti-establishment and largely (though not exclusively) anti-EU, but on the economy (taxation, spending, borrowing, deficit reduction) their ex-Labour and ex-Conservative voters differ significantly.
So the connection to Labour is partly about ideology. Nigel Farage talks about cutting taxes further at all levels, including for lower income groups, but also about raising public expenditure across the board (on defence, on our roads, the NHS, on restoring police budgets, on doubling the prison population). And a growing part of Farage’s narrative is one of distancing himself from the Right – for example, stressing to Andrew Marr recently that his party doesn’t embody Thatcherism, claiming “that while half the country benefited” from Mrs Thatcher’s polices “the other half didn’t”.
But UKIP’s connection with Labour is also practical. UKIP are already propping-up a Labour-led administration in Norfolk, although the Conservatives are by far the biggest party on the council. The Norfolk situation is instructive, and after the local elections it is possible that other forms of co-operation with Labour might occur. In these situations, it will be important that we closely monitor all that UKIP councillors are saying and doing over the coming months when it comes to these kind of deals.
So how, in light of the above, might we adjust our response to UKIP? We should certainly continue to engage vigorously with those switching away from us (via our clear and powerful offer on the EU and a sharpened position on immigration). We should continue to press the tremendous economic success delivered by a Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor. We should keep re-emphasising that a Vote for UKIP will lead to Ed Miliband in Number 10.
But we should also point up that UKIP is as fiscally irresponsible as the worst of Balls and Brown. That their sums don’t add up. That they would overspend massively relative to their aspirations for lower taxes and deficit reduction. That their electoral appeal to Left and Right is inconsistent and undeliverable – a ‘have your cake and eat it’ brand of politics. For whilst Farage can offer tax cuts, he can apparently raise spending too whilst eliminating the deficit and demolishing the debt.
When pressed on how all this gets funded, he typically falls back on the money we would save through leaving the EU (even though, and I say this as an avowed Euro-Sceptic, leaving will bring the costs of disruption, the costs of buying access to EU markets and the engagement with new trading partners will certainly not happen overnight). He relies also on cutting overseas aid but, rather like Labour’s banking tax, he has a habit of spending the money several times over. Also, in the words of those politicians who have truly failed to learn from history, he suggests that he can immediately lever out blindingly obvious and monumental chunks of readily available virgin cash by slashing bureaucracy overnight – real gains here are possible, as we have shown, but progress takes time. Fiscal irresponsibility and increased public expenditure are the tropes of the Left not the Right. So let’s put Nigel squarely where he belongs – over with Ed.
Our opportunity to up the challenge in this way is fast approaching. For whilst Farage has, with characteristically luxurious and dismissive gusto, disowned (indeed, apparently physically “torn up”) UKIP’s last manifesto, the moment for his next offering is almost upon us.
If we do see a shift to a more politically balanced vote take from UKIP then this could be devastating for Labour, who have been counting on a UKIP dividend resulting from a disproportional impact on Conservatives in seats they need to win. Now they face the very real prospect that their share of the vote in many target seats may actually fall.
While Conservatives have long been aware of the danger posed by UKIP and have responded in significant ways to it over this Parliament, Labour run the risk of being caught on the hop. The results in May were, in the words of John Healey, a former Minister, ‘a wake-up call’. He warned his party prior to the poll that it was not taking UKIP ‘seriously enough’ and that it urgently needed to work up a plan. Now the election is just 11 months away; Labour have little time to get a grip on the threat that they once quietly welcomed, but which now is coming for them too. We should do our bit to make sure it bites them hard.