First published 23rd April on Parliament Street blog.
The General Election is just 14 days away and still wholly for the taking. No one can call it; more surprising yet, no one is claiming otherwise. The polls show that voting intention remains fairly static with the top spot oscillating daily between the Tories and Labour. Last night’s YouGov had the Conservatives on 35% and Labour on 34%, Sunday’s Populus put the Tories on 32% and Labour on 34% while ICM saw the positions reversed and Ashcroft’s top-line figures put Cameron on 34% with Labour down to 30%. A hung parliament is certain and I have money on a second election called by the end of the year, a financial tragedy for all parties, few more so than UKIP. It is my opinion that UKIP will fail to turn its sustained support into votes on the 7th May and will suffer accordingly with a disproportionately small number of seats in the newly formed parliament; this is not a solitary view, but my reasons contradict much of current mainstream thinking.
As has become custom, UKIP, the party that has arguably rejuvenated both the electorate and the establishment, continues to dominate the news for all the wrong reasons. Last week the party faced criticism from The Telegraph for not having enough “black faces” in its manifesto; this was not just a low blow but an outright falsehood. An unscripted show of solidarity by the ethnic minority party supporters present at the event caused an incidence of depressingly unscripted irony, as the press united to accuse UKIP of “bullying” the journalist. Since, a council candidate in Plymouth has been forced to apologise for a “horrific” tweet mocking the recent Mediterranean migrant tragedy and yet another former UKIP MEP has been accused of swindling taxpayers’ money, this time Ashley Mote and £500,000. Perhaps a greater cause for concern for UKIP has been the party’s showing in opinion polls; to mix a metaphor, UKIP appeared to be losing steam at the final furlong. Their lowest Opinium showing in two years, which at 11% still outflanked the wildest dreams of the Lib Dems, triggered much crowing throughout the press and prompted the Conservatives to redouble efforts to encourage UKIP voters to “come home”. And now, a far cry from Farage’s jubilant claims that UKIP might reign triumphant in 40 seats, the main forecasters predict that UKIP are on course for a mere five seats at best, with Elections Forecast and the brilliant May 2015 website suggesting just three and others foreseeing that Douglas Carswell alone will win under the UKIP banner.
I’ve never been too optimistic about UKIP’s chances in May, even back when a committed party member.
There are a few reasons for this. Of course, there’s the voting system. First Past the Post makes it extraordinarily difficult for smaller parties to break through. UKIP is fielding candidates in 624 of 650 seats and today average 15% in the polls; if this percentage held in an election with a directly proportional system, UKIP would win an impressive 93 seats. As it is, six would be a huge success.
UKIP also lacks the local government presence of the other major parties; just 370 councillors to the Lib Dems’ 2,257, Labour’s 7,127 and 8,296 Conservatives. UKIP Party membership stands at 45,000 to the Tories’ 150,000 and Labour’s 190,000. The age of mass political party membership may be behind us but fewer members tends to equate to fewer activists, just as a smaller presence in local government correlates to lesser organisation at local level. The Lib Dems are the masters of using solid local organisation and a hold in local councils to elect and retain Members of Parliament, a skill that could see them hold far more seats than their 7% polling suggests. What is more, it is not entirely cruel to suspect that a chunk of UKIP’s activists are not quite so able to wear out their limbs delivering leaflets and getting out the votes than the younger activist bases of, say, the Greens. All of this could have a deleterious effect on turnout and share of the vote but there’s little that can be done now. I do, however, believe that Farage will take Thanet South and that the party will come second in unprecedented numbers, particularly in the North of England, leaving the door open for a UKIP triumph in 2020 if Miliband is allowed to drag the country back to the dogs.
Organisation aside, if May’s result has Farage hanging his head in despair, much of the press would have us believe that this is a direct result of its sustained negative media campaign of the past two years. Others, mostly on the left, would have it that UKIP’s ill-fortunes are the result of gaffe after “racist” gaffe; clearly, they will say, the electorate saw UKIP for the sinister racist homophobes they are and voted accordingly. Both would be wrong.
The point that neither the press nor establishment politicians seem to understand is that no headline, no ill-judged tweet by a council candidate from Godknowswhere-upon-Tyne, makes a blind bit of difference to a committed Kipper or even a sympathetic waverer. The negative headlines of whichever latest race row, a shameless (alleged) fraud case by a leading MEP and Farage’s ill-judged attack on HIV positive migrants might shock the Guardian but UKIP lap up the publicity to bounce back stronger. Their temporary lull in the polls has passed and they are back on 13-16% today. The phrase “Teflon politician” is often thrown around about Farage but time and time again it is shown to be true.
Another point that Conservatives especially miscomprehend is that empty promises and desperate pleas from David Cameron will not bring back UKIP voters to the Tory fold. This week Cameron promised that his party would “do more” on immigration and the EU, two issues on which the Conservatives cannot win against UKIP. UKIP supporters from Marsden to Middleton believe emphatically that Cameron is weak when it comes to Europe; they think the last five years gave ample opportunity to hold a referendum if the Prime Minister was serious. They also know, like many Conservatives in their hearts, that freedom of movement is not up for renegotiation, even if Cameron held greater influence among European leaders.
But there is one tactic that Cameron has found that may well stump UKIP come polling day: fear. Fear of a Labour/SNP alliance. The fear that will niggle at a voter when alone in the ballot box; the fear of a Labour government propped up by Sturgeon. In my mind, this is the one sure fire way to scare a Kipper into home-coming submission in that ballot-box moment: the thought of Ed Miliband for Prime Minister with Sturgeon pulling the strings. By marrying the SNP with Labour, Cameron is putting the onus on formerly Conservative UKIP voters to prevent the “toxic tie-up” that would lead to everything a classical UKIP voter hates: higher taxes, weaker defence, no EU referendum, ever more stringent “Green” policies, higher levels of immigration and unbearable, hand-wringing left-wingery for the next five years. Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University, arguably the authority on all UKIP matters, argues that a UKIP vote could damage the Conservatives in 69 key seats and deep-down many of us with UKIP sympathies know it; as the election draws closer and Sturgeon continues to flex her muscles, this is a powerful argument that may yet save Cameron’s bacon. Depressing though it is, Cameron would do better to focus his energies into over-emphasizing the SNP effect than making useless pleas to the hearts of voters; promises will be overlooked, but the threat of 1970s style socialism cannot be ignored.