05 May 2013

The UK Independence Party and the reactionary majority

(Just for some explanation for starters... I never did finish that Mrs T post because the whole death and funeral thing became rather a media circus and in the end I was just glad it was all over. So there probably won't be a "Part 2" to that post. Sorry about that. )

The big news this week is the rise of UKIP to a major player in local government, going from 8 to 147 councillors in the local elections (held mainly in the predominately Tory "shire counties"). The Tories lost 335 seats which was poor, although not disastrously so for a governing party. Labour won 291 seats which was good but not spectacular (see Luke Akehurst on LabourList for a good summary of the results from a strategic Labour perspective). The Fib Dems, like the Tories, performed badly but not catastrophically. The Green Party gained 5 seats for a total of 22 - steady if unspectacular progress, including 2 very good wins in Essex, which was very pleasing. I was also pleased to see gains for Mebyon Kernow and the Old Liberals (that classic "70s washing powder" logo for the Liberal Party is the best thing in British politics today, without a doubt).

The good professors Rallings and Thrasher at Plymouth University (sounds like a classic comedy double act) have worked out a projected national vote share based on the county council election results. Now, some caveats to this:

(a) it's hard to tell much about the areas where elections didn't take place - most of Wales, all of Scotland, and most of the English cities and urban areas - from the county results, so it's not clear how accurate a national picture this is;
(b) local turnout is almost always much lower than general election turnout (unless you have local and general elections on the same day) so there are a huge number of people who will be involved in a general election who simply don't take part in the locals, making extrapolation to a general election vote difficult;
(c) people may be voting on different issues locally to nationally;
(d) the UKIP surge makes things even more unpredictable than usual because there is very little previous data to go on.

Anyway with that in mind, Rallings and Thrasher suggest vote shares as follows:
Labour - 29%
Tories - 25%
UKIP - 23%
Fib Dems - 14%
Other - 9%

Feeding these into the election calculator at UK Polling Report produces a Labour majority of 20 which, oddly enough, is roundabout my gut feeling for the outcome of the next election: Labour with a small, but workable, majority. Having said that, the UK Polling Report calculator isn't much good for these purposes as it doesn't even allow disaggregation of "Other" into UKIP plus smaller parties.

Can UKIP manage 23% at a general election? I doubt it, although even 10% - a far more achievable goal - would most likely make a huge difference compared with 3.1% which was what they scored in 2010. Looking at the political situation now one gets the feeling that a huge proportion of the electorate is hacked off, and likely to stay hacked off for years, if not decades. UKIP's strength is that it can do that peculiarly English combination of Colonel Blimp authoritarianism, anti-Europeanism and smoking-room libertarianism better than the right wing of the Tory party can. And in Nigel Farage, it has the most articulate of the 4 main party leaders. Yes the manifesto isn't that coherent; yes, some of the candidates are questionable. But then, much of the same critique could be levelled at the other parties - and they lack the excitement generated by Farage.

The key question for the outcome of the next election, as well as how high the UKIP vote share can go, is how much of their vote comes from the Tories compared with Labour. Looking at today's YouGov poll - which shows UKIP on 12% - their support comprises 19% of the people who voted Tory last time (about 7% of all voters on my calculations), 5% of the people who voted Labour last time (about 1.5%) and 8% of the people who voted Lib Dem (about 1.5%). That makes 10%, so presumably the other 2% of support is people who voted UKIP last time (or didn't vote at all). In other words Tory switchers to UKIP are outnumbering Labour switchers to UKIP by almost 5 to 1. This pattern of UKIP support makes it much, much easier for Labour to come out ahead of the Tories in the general election. Ed could secure a majority with a vote share somewhere in the low 30s.

Of course, this would be an artefact of a truly ludicrous electoral system rather than a vote of confidence in the Labour Party. If Labour won an overall majority with (say) 32% of the vote - equal to its 1987 vote share under Neil Kinnock, when the Tories had a majority of over 100 - does anyone think the country would be stable? Does anyone think the right would take that as a legitimate result? I think the Powers That Be would foment some kind of uprising and take control by force.

The UKIP surge, on the face of it, means that rather than the Polly Toynbee-esque "progressive majority" in UK politics, there is actually a reactionary majority - and it's growing. If we take the latest YouGov poll and optimistically assume that Labour's 40% plus 2% for the Greens is the "progressive vote", then the right-wing vote comprises 30% Tory plus 12% UKIP plus 11% Fib Dems - that's 53% for hard-right politics, right there. Staring You In The Face. It's true that some people who are voting UKIP may actually be hard left on certain issues; for example UKIP claims it's going to massively increase spending on local services while cutting taxes, and it may be that some people are voting for the spending increase part of that equation (despite the fact the policy is totally incoherent). But Farage, of course, is hard right (although not fascist IMHO).

So, UKIP: potentially a shot in the arm for Ed Miliband's electoral chances in the short run, but in the longer run a harbinger of a very nasty shift in UK politics to something much more right wing than we have seen at any point in the univeral suffrage era. Centered around three planks: opposition to immigration, opposition to the EU, and a Tea Party-esque dislike of the "Westminster bubble". Be Very Afraid.

One last point: if Labour does get in on 32% or something not much more than that, Tories are going to be ruing the day they campaigned against AV in 2011. AV would have contained the UKIP threat right there, as the majority of UKIP voters would have had Tory as second preference.


Chris Brooke said...

This seems to me very sensible indeed--and much more so that what we're getting in the papers--until we get to the final four paragraphs, where I think I disagree with pretty much everything!

Which is to say: I don’t think there’d be any kind of ‘uprising’ or coup in the even of Miliband winning on c. 30% of the vote; while (as you know) I think analyses that depend in the notion of a ‘progressive majority’ are pretty silly, I think you’re much to quick to conclude that there’s a ‘reactionary majority’: whatever the behaviour of the party leadership and MPs, most Lib Dem voters are not ‘right-wing’ in any especially useful sense. And even if the Tories were to lose the 2015 election on a split right-wing vote, I doubt many would regret (publicly or privately) their opposition to AV. That would only happen in the event of four-party politics bedding down over the longer run—in which case Labour would probably offer to help change the electoral system, anyway, in the face of its own nervousness about the future.

In order to prove I'm not a robot, incidentally, I have to type the word "Osborne".

Hal Berstram said...

Fair points, Chris.

On the "reactionary majority", I should clarify: it seems to me that the balance of public opinion is currently fairly right-wing on certain issues - immigration, and to an extent social security (although it depends a lot how the questions are framed) and left-wing on others (e.g. the bankers, taxing the rich etc). So it doesn't actually make a lot of sense to say there is a "progressive majority" or a "reactionary majority" in terms of what the public thinks across the board. However, I was really talking about the majority in terms of the official line of the parties whom votes are being cast for. I agree that Lib Dem voters aren't necessarily right-wing (although many left-wingers have stopped backing them) but the politicians they are voting for ARE right-wing - or at least they see nothing wrong in collaborating with a right-wing Tory govt. Similarly, some UKIP voters may not actually be particularly right-wing - in fact they could be left-wing on many issues - but the politicians they're voting for certainly are right wing. That's the concept I was trying to get across - somewhat ineptly!

Call me a conspiracy theorist but I think the establishment would take steps to mobilise against a Miliband adminstration on 30% of the vote, particularly if Ed was implementing a radical agenda. Remember the plot to destabilise the Wilson govt in the mid-70s ("Spycatcher" etc?) This could be the same thing again. I'm constantly vigilant about this sort of thing.

The thing with AV is that it would have solved the UKIP problem in one fell swoop for the Tories. Also it would have helped lock in right-wing Lib Dem votes. It's a weird thing because the Tory party has - at least since the days of Peel - been such a successful electoral vehicle because it's quite UN-conservative in many respects, operating pragmatically to ensure the best chance of being elected. Supporting AV would have been a move in that tradition, and perhaps the failure of the Tories to back AV indicates that they're nowhere near as agile a political outfit as they once were.

Chris Brooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Brooke said...

On conspiracies, etc., I think the kind of coup you're thinking about is more likely to the extent that the Labour government is pursuing a radical agenda. But (i) a Miliband government is highly unlikely to be pursuing a radical agenda and (ii) if it is elected on a low poll in a low turnout election it is even less likely than it otherwise would be to be pursuing a radical agenda.

I think one of the interesting thing about the Tories is that they aren't just a pragmatic operation, though many people think they are. Over issues of Union (with Ireland in the 19th century and with Scotland in the 21st) they tend to be quite opposed to separatism, even though analysts queue up to tell them that they would dominate politics forever if England separated from its neighbours. And the Tories kept up a principled opposition to women having the vote long after it became clear that they would be the beneficiaries of a widespread women's franchise. So it is always an interesting question as to when the Tories move on these kinds of questions. I don't think they'll be moving on voting reform for quite a while.

Hal Berstram said...

It'll be very interesting to see what happens to the Tory stance on electoral reform in the event of a serious UKIP incursion into their vote at the general election. The interesting thing about AV is that it is pretty much the least radical reform to the voting system one could imagine, and preserves the main thing which the Tories like, which is the single MP constituency link, so I'd be surprised if they could summon up any really fundamental objection t it if they felt it was really in their interest to do it. I think what was putting the Tories off in 2011 was the prospect of permanent coalition govt with the Fib Dems, and in a sense who can blame them?

Weirder in some ways was the huge enthusiasm of the Fib Dems for AV - a system which is not their manifesto policy of proportional representation, and which they slagged off when Labour put it in the 2010 manifesto. In a way it's no surprise the public saw through all this bollocks.

Interestingly, UKIP were enthusiastic supporters of AV (despite no real evidence that they'd benefit from it): Farage wasn't used at all by the "Yes" campaign, which in respect was a mistake (although pretty much everything about the "Yes" campaign was a mistake!)

Hal Berstram said...

On Miliband's radical agenda (or lack of it) I agree with you but I must say I think it's a crying shame.