If a party can’t win seats of its own in a general election, its biggest electoral effect will obviously be on others’ seats. The question then arises of which rivals it will take votes from in the marginals that determine the overall result.
Labour is worried about the emergence of UKIP as challengers in the seats it holds. This is a sensible precaution by the party’s strategists, since Labour’s electoral base, like voters of any kind, are disillusioned with the political class – including the party they’ve traditionally supported. For many of these people, the Conservatives are an anathema, politically and culturally. The Liberal Democrats are discredited by being in coalition with the Tories, and as a party of government no longer grab the protest vote. The BNP had a bit of a push with these voters during the last Parliament, but has imploded.
The lesson of the Wythenshawe and Sale by-election is that if UKIP is ever to beat Labour in that party’s heartland seats, it has a very long way to go. It won a mere 4,301 votes – some 18 per cent of the total. That isn’t much more than the Conservatives’ 3,479 votes and 14.5 per cent. (Mark Wallace wrote earlier today about the decidedly low-key Tory campaign, which deliberately sought to avoid pushing national issues altogether.) And Labour? It scooped up 13,261 votes – comfortably over half of all of them.
The low turnout is a reminder that Miliband isn’t inspiring the party’s core support, or what once made it up. But it also shows that UKIP is no threat to Labour in its heartlands, at least at present. Nigel Farage can’t even claim that the result took his party forwards: as Mike Smithson points out, Wythenshawe was UKIP’s poorest by-election result since Croydon South in 2012. This duly returns us to asking whether UKIP can win seats of its own in 2015 – and, if it can’t, whether it will hit Labour or the Conservatives most in the constituencies that will decide the result.
UKIP might just pick up one or two seats – but they will surely be ones in which the party has the base and councillors that it lacks in Wythenshawe (unless Farage himself stands, and does a lot better than he did in Buckingham in 2010). And the constituencies where they tend to have most councillors are Tory seats. But be all that as it may, let’s end where we started – by asking which potential main party of government UKIP will take most votes from in the marginal seats that will decide who governs. The answer to date is unambiguous: the Conservatives.
Lord Ashcroft found a week or so ago in his Wythenshawe poll that UKIP was taking its support “largely but by no means exclusively from the Tories”. This dovetails with his survey of marginals last year, which discovered that “Labour’s lead in these seats has grown from 9 to 14 points over the last two years, largely because of the defection of Tory voters to UKIP”. Over at the Daily Telegraph, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have been pointing out that UKIP supporters are not all “grumpy Tories” (as they put it).
They add that the party’s supporters “look more like Old Labour than True Blue Tories”; that UKIP is “Britain’s most working-class party”, and that “the ‘disaffected Tory thesis’ has become entrenched in the Westminster village, and now dominates misguided coverage of the party”. Earlier, Ford and Goodwin went further, asking on this site: “might UKIP succeed where the BNP has failed”? And earlier still they went further still, writing bluntly in the Guardian: “Labour, fear UKIP”. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t think Miliband will be frightened of Farage this morning.
The main point is simple. Perhaps UKIP really will be a threat to Labour one day – and, furthermore, more of one to that party than to the Conservatives. But at present, evidence suggests that if UKIP keeps anyone out of Downing Street, it will be not Miliband, but Cameron. The Farage-Miliband, Ribbentrop-Molotov pact is still going strong.