How should we deal with UKIP? Iain Dale chaired the panel at the ConHome conference, Securing a Majority, which discussed this to many people still rather puzzling question. Many penetrating observations were made on the subject, but no generally accepted answer emerged. So here is a flavour of what was said.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Bright Blue think tank (which, he joked, is known to some as Barely Blue), said: “The Conservative family is stronger through its breadth. So the challenge now is to convince those who have left the Conservative family to rejoin us.”
In Shorthouse’s view, there is no need to panic: “The earthquake I think is much exaggerated.” Many UKIP voters will return to the fold. To encourage this, Conservatives should neither attack these voters as racists, nor pander to UKIP. It is instead important to “woo those on modest incomes” and “to be proud and passionate Conservatives”. He added that “we should be the party of patriotism – we should be proud of modern Britain”.
Matthew Goodwin, co-author of Revolt on the Right, pointed to research which suggests that up to two-thirds of people who voted for UKIP will stay loyal to that party. He said that UKIP’s core loyalists are “not just the left behind but the very left behind”, and are the voters most worried about immigration.
Goodwin warned against trying to “answer a cultural challenge” by means of an economic programme. UKIP loyalists want to talk about national identity.
In Goodwin’s view, UKIP will run a highly targetted campaign in 2015, concentrating its resources on the ten to twelve seats where it has the best chance, instead of scattering its efforts far and wide as it did in 2010.
Mark Reckless, the Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, said “UKIP have indelibly linked immigration and the EU”. He pointed out that “there is no way David Cameron as a party leader could possibly renege on the commitment he has given to an in-out referendum”. The problem was that “many of those who vote UKIP don’t believe” in this commitment, and fear that even if there is a referendum, “they’ll be tricked – the referendum will be an Establishment ruse”.
An important part of the answer, he believes, is to deal with UKIP “not just as a Conservative but as someone who [like himself] believes we’re better off out”. And, he added, “we have to be about optimism”, for “they are pessimistic”. Reckless himself sounded like a rather angry optimist.
Goodwin warned that “a pledge on the referendum is not going to win core UKIP back”. He pointed out that UKIP is “the most working-class party we’ve seen since Michael Foot ran the Labour Party”. These voters got cut out of the political conversation a long time ago, and UKIP now offers them a voice. Their three core positions are hostility to the European Union, hostility to immigration, and hostility to Westminster politics. They “feel completely alienated from our politics”, and Goodwin ended by asking: “Is Euan Blair or Stephen Kinnock going to reconnect with these disconnected voters?”
The fourth member of the panel, Iain Martin of the Telegraph, thought the Conservatives are now in a very difficult position: having alienated UKIP voters, there is now no easy way to get them back. He observed that Margaret Thatcher “would have drawn the line at the free movement of labour”. People had never been asked whether they wanted this free movement: “it just happened”, which had left people feeling “baffled and disappointed”.
A young man in the audience declared that UKIP is “a racist, sexist and homophobic party – they have disgusting views”. Martin observed that “a lot of UKIP voters would hear that as an attack on them”, and suggested that a coalition will have to be built between the 33 to 35 per cent of people who vote Tory, and the 10 to 15 per cent who vote UKIP.
Alberto Costa, from Islington, observed that “UKIP is in many respects England’s SNP”, with each party led by “a very charismatic leader”. Rupert Myers, from Battersea, suggested that UKIP voters support that party because it offers them certainty and trust. He thought the Tories needed to offer certainty by declaring “red lines” in the 2015 manifesto, and wondered what these might be.
My apologies to anyone who contributed to this debate whose views are not recorded here. The session was the last of the day, but was listened to with close attention. At times I found myself so intrigued by what was being said that I neglected my duties as a reporter, and failed to keep writing. There is no doubt that the Conservative response to UKIP is not yet fully formed. Nor, one might add, is Labour’s.