"http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7777708/the-rise-of-ukip.thtml">recent chatter about UKIP being a big obstacle to a Tory majority in 2015 would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
I’m never sure whether those who bring it up really believe it, or whether they’re just desperate to scare their fellow Conservatives into not swinging too far to the supposedly soggy
centre. Either way, it simply won’t wash.
Basically, the British electorate, like most electorates in advanced democracies, is like one big bell-curve. Most voters like to think of themselves as somewhere in or towards the middle, although
there is of course a tail to either side. In PR systems, this tail can be big enough to give less centrist parties enough of niche to make it into parliament. Under First Past the Post, however,
the only parties that make it into the legislature are big, reasonably moderate parties which compete with each other where most of the voters are. For their part, voters, because they don’t
like wasting their time, aren’t generally very interested in parties which have no chance of winning even if they do happen to sympathise with parts of their programme.
The exceptions that prove the rule are parties which can concentrate their support in particular constituencies, thereby making it obvious that they are in with a shout. However, outside Northern
Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there aren’t many parties which can pull off that trick. The Greens in Brighton and, more recently, Respect in Bradford are the only two that spring to mind.
Maybe UKIP could win a seat or two by copying their strategy. But even if they could it would hardly present a major threat to a Tory majority.
‘Ah’, I hear you cry, ‘that’s not what we’re talking about. The real risk is UKIP siphoning off votes in marginals that might otherwise have gone to the Tories!’
Cue a host of nerds and nutters whipping off their anoraks, whipping out their calculators, compiling lists of constituencies where the actual or potential vote for UKIP exceeds the Conservative
majority, and issuing dire warnings to the Tory high-command.
Well, I’ve got bad news for you on this one too. Political scientists who (for good or ill) do this kind of thing for a living have tried it too but, because they have to control for
all sorts of other factors, habitually find that the impact is vastly exaggerated. At best we’re talking about no more than a handful of seats — certainly nowhere near enough to mean
the difference between the Tories being the biggest party and a comfortable overall majority.
True, UKIP is almost bound to do well at the next European Parliament elections. Those elections are a perfect opportunity for a protest vote. They’re fought under PR. They tend not to
attract much interest from people who don’t bother voting except at general elections but they do excite people who feel passionately about particular causes. And they’re about Europe
for God’s sake!
But come 2015 (presuming the coalition lasts that long) Nigel Farage and company won’t be the biggest threat to the Tories. Worrying about them is a daft distraction. The real danger, as
always, will be Labour — if, that is, it can somehow get its act together.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Sussex University and author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.Tags: Conservatives, Elections, Labour, Nigel Farage, Right to Reply, UK politics, UKIP