James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Is UKIP’s rise good for the Conservatives? The answers you’ll get from Tory strategists depends on three things: their Europe obsession; whether they self-define as right-wing or Tory; and whether they take a long-term view about politics.
For some Conservatives, UKIP’s rise is a disaster because it pressured Cameron into a referendum that finished him – and because centre-right ideas are being made by people most voters don’t like. For others, their rise is viewed as a good thing – shifting the centre of gravity of politics right and introducing conservative ideas to more people.
Whatever the truth, UKIP’s rise and the elevation of Paul Nuttall is a potential disaster for Labour. Not everything Nuttall says will be popular with Northern working class Labour voters. But in Nuttall, UKIP have got a plain-speaking Northerner – an excellent communicator – with values many Labour voters will share.
The vote to leave the EU changes the context for UKIP. At one level, their job is done. However, the process of leaving looks set to be long and complicated. There will be a major hole in the debate for UKIP to fill. Their views on free movement will be particularly powerful. Some Labour politicians see the dangers, and are seeking to reassure voters they won’t stand in the way of the public vote. But it’s fair to say that the party is sending mixed messages, with some of their spokespeople suggesting the opposite. If Nuttall tours the North of England telling Labour voters their party doesn’t respect their vote, it’ll be hugely damaging.
But the threat to Labour stretches beyond the short-term. Culturally, the Labour Party is a million miles away from the values of ordinary Labour voters. Nuttall argued this in a recent article: “ …the Labour Party has abandoned its working class roots in favour of the politics of the metropolitan dinner party. It is more at home with its hobby horses of human rights, Palestine and climate change than the things that really matter to working people.”
Judging by its past record, you have to assume a UKIP implosion caused by internal incompetence. But if Nuttall can keep the show on the road and take control of the party, and shift it in a populist direction, there is the possibility that UKIP will devastate Labour in years to come. That’s a lot of “ifs” and assumptions, but look at what’s happened in recent times.
Which takes us back to the Tories. Is UKIP’s rise good or bad? Theresa May’s industrial strategy is the best positive campaign any Conservative leadership team has produced for Northern voters in recent times. It shows they’re serious about provincial England and our major towns and cities.That said, for many voters, voting Conservative is still a step too far. It could be that UKIP are able to break Northern voters’ habit of voting Labour – and the Tories could fall in behind.
Many Tory strategists would argue that such a UKIP surge would be a disaster for the country and therefore for the Party – regardless of whether Labour was fundamentally damaged and more seats were in play. As I wrote at the outset, the answer to the question depends on your fundamental outlook on politics.