Everyone in Westminster is talking about UKIP. The purple surge that we saw in last week’s county council elections has got political anoraks talking. The Prime Minister needs to secure his core supporters with more of a focus on immigration, crime and the EU, say some. Others urge Cameron not to ape Farage as he won’t be able to out-Kip a Kipper. They’ll just come back to the table asking for more.
I personally don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with the Ukip problem. And here’s why.
General Elections in the UK are won and lost in only a handful of seats. This week, I asked my brother-in-law, a data-set wizard, to pull together some figures showing the core marginal seats that will be up for grabs in 2015. There are 108 of these marginal constituencies where the majority is less than 6%. Ukip will have a major say in at least 53 of these based on its share of the vote in 2010 (i.e. the party’s vote share is larger than the majority in that marginal).
The Conservative party is incumbent in 24 of these seats, all but five of which are Tory-Labour battlegrounds. There is no doubt that MPs such as Jackie Doyle-Price in Thurrock, Eric Ollerenshaw in Lancaster and Fleetwood and David Mowat in Warrington South have a fight on their hands come 2015. They are under threat from UKIP eating into their very small majorities. However, they have to be conscious of another, arguably more dangerous problem – Labour eating into the Lib Dem vote as disillusioned progressives decide to back Miliband. Lord Ashcroft’s polling earlier in the year found that two fifths of Lib Dem voters from 2010 have switched to Labour or the Greens. And of all defectors from the Libs, those switching to Labour are the most likely to say they are sure how they will vote.
If, as a result of making overtures to Ukip, the Lib Dem vote breaks disproportionately for Labour, then holding onto seats in the North West and Midlands will be especially difficult for the Conservative incumbents.
However, a different approach might be required in other regions of the country. In the four Lib Dem battlegrounds down in the South West, for example, the local Conservative associations probably need to hold the vote and entice transient Kippers back into the Tory fold. Perhaps a more robust right-wing strategy is called for in the South West?
Fighting the Labour machine
As with the retention seats, the critical issue in the 15 constituencies that the Conservatives have to take from Labour to stand a chance of winning an overall majority at the next election, is how the Lib Dem vote will break for the Conservatives and Labour.
Tacking right probably won’t satisfy the 8.5% of voters who voted Ukip in Dudley North. And it will have the added effect of possibly pushing Lib Dem voters into the arms of Ed Miliband and Labour. However, any defections to Ukip will kill the chances of Tory gains in the Midlands and North West. This is an unenviable Catch-22 for the party machine.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with the Ukip problem. Party strategists have to ask themselves what is the biggest risk: Conservatives defecting to Ukip, or former Lib Dems breaking disproportionately for Labour?
For what it’s worth my advice to David Cameron would be to forget about the various electoral connotations and focus on leading the country. Elections are increasingly decided on competency as Policy Exchange’s report, Northern Lights, found last year. As every good business leader understands, you need to be aware of what the competition is up to and be prepared to second guess their next steps. But a good leader also sticks to what they think is the right course of action, even if others – including friends – disagree.