Labour can benefit from the rise of UKIP

 Tom Bailey

Image © The Freedom Association

Since the 2010 general election, there has been much doom written by left-wing commentators about the British electorate leaning further and further towards the right. Ed Miliband’s ever-scathing critic, Dan Hodges, stated that ‘the electorate is shifting to the Right, not to the Left’ and argued that Labour must consequently move there too. There is an element of truth in the assessment that on issues such as Europe, immigration and the economy, the political right is currently more popular. However, there has not been a clear shift of support from Labour to the Tories since the election. Labour has increased its support since 2010, both in terms of membership and according to polls surveying voting intentions. There has though been a different shift to the political right occurring: the transfer of support from the Conservatives to UKIP, a development that could be of vital importance come 2015. Labour can benefit from this fracture amongst England’s political right much in the same way that the SDP/Liberal/Labour divides in the 1980s aided three successive Thatcher governments. Defection of votes from the Tories to UKIP helped Labour squeeze past in marginal seats in 2010. This effect seems only likely to increase as right-wing dissatisfaction deepens with this government.

The problem for Cameron is that many right-wing voters and politicians see his coalition government as weak on issues of core importance. In his memoirs discussing his years in parliament, ‘A Walk-On Part’, former Labour MP Chris Mullin noted on the day of the 1997 election result that ‘victory is not when our side get the red dispatch boxes and the official cars, but when something changes for the better.’ This line of criticism, that there is no point being in power if you fail to get the right policies enacted, can be seen in every negative left-wing account of New Labour. Increasingly, it seems that Thatcherite backbenchers and voters are having this same thought about the present government. Their aims are not being met, dissatisfaction is rumbling ever louder and UKIP’s policies are looking more attractive.

The anger is not about ephemeral issues but ones of vital importance. The anger has been evident amongst the rebellious 2010 intake of Tory backbenchers who, in the words of Conservative Home, are a political ‘generation that cut its political teeth under Margaret Thatcher’. The perceived policy failures are in areas which Thatcher herself prioritised. She called for reduced state spending, rallied against the EU and warned against the UK being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. To many Tory MPs and right-wing commentators, the government continues to spend too much despite the cuts. They believe that the UK remains strangled, both economically and politically, by the EU. Although Cameron’s veto last December had eurosceptics delighted with his leadership, this week’s developments have demonstrated that veto’s non-existence and highlighted the widening chasm between the Tory leadership and the eurosceptic political right. Tory MEP Danniel Hannan complained ‘so now we know: no repatriation, no renegotiation, business as usual. December’s ‘veto’ turns out to be nothing of the kind; at best, it is a partial opt-out.’ Even if the veto had been meaningful, Cameron believes Britain should remain in the EU and supports eurozone fiscal union. Further to the EU problems for Cameron, immigration hit a new peak last year despite a promised reduction to ‘tens of thousands’. EU immigration accounts for almost half of all coming to the UK. As we cannot restrict EU immigration as part of the EU, those opposed to immigration would surely prefer UKIP to the Tories. The coalition government Tory party is not matching the expectations of the eurosceptic, Thatcherite right on these central issues.

The consequence has been that UKIP’s electoral support has been growing considerably. One YouGov poll put their support at 7%, a number familiar to the Lib Dems. This could benefit Labour immensely. If this level of support for UKIP remains in 2015, it could divide the right wing vote in essential, marginal English constituencies. Indeed, Peter Oborne argued that ‘it goes without saying that a Tory leader can never win an election so long as the broader Conservative movement is so painfully split.’ In response to the UKIP challenge, Cameron could shift to the right. However, this seems unlikely. Cameron’s leadership was centred on ‘decontaminating’ the Tory brand. Lord Ashcroft’s research found that this process remains incomplete and was an electoral hindrance in 2010 against winning floating voters. Given the restrictions of a coalition government, it seems unlikely that Cameron could satisfy the discontented eurosceptics. Consequently, the Tories risk haemorrhaging support to UKIP. This development will certainly not win Labour the 2015 election, but it will give Miliband a boost. With eurosceptic papers raging that the present crisis of the euro represents a “’once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to claw back powers from Brussels”, the divides within the Conservative party over the EU in particular are being stretched to breaking point. If there were a major Tory loss of Eurosceptic support, the rise of UKIP could help Labour back into government in 2015.

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