Today’s conclusion from the British Election Study that Ukip will hurt the Tories far more than it will damage Labour at the General Election is unsurprising, but still important as its warning that the Conservative party could lose nearly two million voters to Nigel Farage’s party underlines the need for the Tories to find a decent solution to Ukip.
Thus far the Tories have tended to capitulate to Ukip on policies, with Nigel Farage becoming a think tank for policy development by applying pressure on nervous MPs who eventually secure concessions from David Cameron in the form of policies he didn’t really want to announce. But last month David Cameron suggested he’d been pushed far enough, angering the most Ukippish elements of his party by making a reasonably europhile speech on immigration that only included reforms to migrants’ access to benefits rather than plans to change freedom of movement. He is wise to dispense with the services of Farage’s think tank, as adopting Ukip policies rather than distinctively Conservative ones risks proving Ukip’s point without making any dent on those two million vulnerable votes.
And while Labour faces a smaller threat from Ukip, the research from BES is hardly cheering, with the report’s authors saying that the main damage has already been done. The party’s voters have already deserted it. The University of Oxford’s Professor Geoff Evans says:
‘In October, Labour narrowly held Heywood and Middleton in a strongly contested by-election, which showed high levels of Ukip support in a traditionally Labour voting constituency”.
‘But BES data shows how labour had lost these voters some time ago. Most Ukip voters who had voted Labour in 2005 had not voted for them in 2010. Ukip support in Labour constituencies is more likely to be taken from disaffected former Labour voters, and these are far more likely to be manual workers than the middle classes that New Labour appealed to.’
The great risk for Labour is that it hasn’t noticed that its core is less sturdy than it thought and that when it tries to lean on it to get over the line and command some kind of power in the House of Commons in 2015, it finds the core has rotted away. The BES findings back that up. Last night I spoke at an event with Lord Mandelson in Parliament, where the peer expressed similar anxieties about a core strategy. He told the event:
‘There is no point in just talking to Labour voters because put simple there are not enough of them to win an election by depending on our current Labour voters alone. Our message can be got across to a wider constituency than the one we have at the moment.’
He also warned that ‘no party that wants to win power at the next election can afford to consign or just simply not bother with groups of voters from different parts of the country. To my mind that would be an act of great self-destruction.’
The question is whether the Tories find a way of persuading those vulnerable voters of theirs from turning to Ukip, or whether Labour is able to reach out beyond its core and speak to voters beyond it – as well as realising that some of the people it thought could still be taken as guaranteed Labour votes might also need a bit of tender loving care too.