Mel Stride is PPS to John Hayes MP, founder of the Deep Blue group of centre-right 2010 Conservative MPs and MP for Central Devon.
Last week, ConservativeHome broke the news that two in five Conservative members would favour a limited electoral pact with UKIP. This number may well grow over the next few months if, as polls suggest, Ukip do especially well in the coming local and European elections, in which expectations are now so high that anything less than first place for Nigel Farage’s party in the European poll may actually present him with a setback.
A pact with UKIP has superficial attractions. Polling by Lord Ashcroft last autumn found that Labour’s lead in 40 key Conservative held marginals had increased to 14 per cent as a consequence of a swing from ourselves to Farage – although this polling failed effectively to take account of the incumbency factor. Yet, while cooperation with UKIP may look like a solution to an immediate problem, in practice it would be perhaps the biggest strategic political mistake since the Gladstone-Macdonald pact of 1903 that enabled the fledgling Labour Party to get a foothold in Parliament.
24 of the 29 seats the LRC (as it then was) won in 1906 were in constituencies in which the Liberals stepped aside. They may have initially benefited from the pact but they would have won the 1906 election without it and, ultimately, by granting Labour a significant foothold in the national legislature they arguably signed their own death warrant. It also has to be said that even the process of talking to UKIP about a pact might be expected to boost it at our own expense – and it is likely that any discussions of a really significant pact would end in failure anyhow.
Conservative supporters like to think that UKIP voters are similar to them, and some voters who have lent their vote to UKIP at European elections are. But as Peter Franklin has reported on this site, research by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin reveals that these ‘strategic defectors’ are very different to core UKIP supporters likely to vote for that party at a General Election. Demographically, core UKIP supporters look much more like Labour voters than Conservative ones. UKIP voters are predominantly working-class: a far lower proportion are above average earners compared with Conservative voters, and they are less likely to be earning above the average compared with the general working population.
UKIP voters also perceive themselves very differently to Conservative voters. YouGov polling from last year found that only 46 per cent of Ukip supporters see themselves as to the right of centre, compared to 60 per cent of Conservative ones. In fact, 36 per cent of Ukip supporters said they were politically in the centre or to the left.
What research makes clear is that UKIP is potentially as much of a problem for Labour as it is for the Conservatives, something that has been substantiated to a degree by recent elections. Steve Fisher from Oxford University has looked at the figures, and found that in places that had local elections in 2012 and 2013 on the same boundaries – combining district wards to make county divisions – UKIP progressed equally at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour. Not only has UKIP gained council seats in and around the Potteries, but they have also fared well in recent by-elections in Labour-held constituencies such as Oldham East & Saddleworth and Barnsley.
Now that UKIP has become a more serious problem for Labour, our aim should be to stress the points that ensure that it becomes even more so. An important part of the Conservative strategy in the run-up to the next election should be, not only to minimise UKIP’s take from us but, to maximise their take from Labour.
We should continue, of course to relentlessly point out that a vote for UKIP could deny the Conservatives a majority and to make the points on our commitment to an EU referendum, being firm on immigration et al. We know from Lord Ashcroft’s research that most former Tory UKIP defectors would prefer a majority Conservative Government to any other outcome. But we should go further, emphasising that UKIP is a very different party to the Conservatives and, in ways most significant to voters, actually more like Labour.
The key messages here are that, just like Labour, UKIP is a fiscally irresponsible party whose policies do not add up, and would threaten our hard-won recovery. UKIP’s 2010 election manifesto (albeit that Nigel Farage claims that he never knew what was in it and says he has torn it up anyway) contained a whopping £120 billion of uncosted pledges. Their plans would have meant spending an extra £30 billion a year more in total while simultaneously cutting taxes. Not so much a long-term plan as another load of Balls.
We must also point up all instances in which UKIP supports Labour at the local level – something that should send a positive cue to Labour supporters whilst cutting through with Conservative-leaning UKIP supporters. I was powerfully reminded of this latter point when I addressed my own association on the UKIP threat. My comments about what we were doing on immigration and the EU were listened to in attentive silence – but when I mentioned that UKIP is propping-up a Labour-led administration in Norfolk hackles were acutely raised. The Norfolk situation is instructive, even though the Conservatives are by far the largest party on the council – we have 40 councillors to Labour’s 15 and the Lib Dems 10 – a block of 14 Ukip Councillors has chosen to support an administration where all the Cabinet posts are held by Labour and the Lib Dems.
To win the next election, we have to get a number of key issues right and some of the more important of these are actually looking pretty good – the economy and having by far the most electable leader being especially important. But UKIP is another nut we simply have to crack if we are going to retain the keys to Number 10. So whilst we must continue to stress our commitment to an EU referendum and our firm stance on immigration, we should also make it clear that UKIP have some of the worst Labour-ite tendencies – in this way we may contain their ‘net take’ from ourselves vs Labour. But to do that we need to spend less time trying to out-UKIP them and more time pointing up our differences.