At face value UKIP is in a mess. A fierce post-election row has led to Nigel Farage returning as unquestioned ruler of the party and a purge of those who apparently tried to undermine him. Patrick O’Flynn has stepped down as economics spokesman having previously called Farage “snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive”. Another major figure, Suzanne Evans, has ended her role as UKIP’s policy chief. So much for the Party’s desire to move on from being a one-man band.
After winning the European Parliament elections last May and securing two seats in Westminster in the autumn by-elections, UKIP had high hopes ahead of the General Election. But come lunchtime of 8 May, these hopes had been dashed. The Party won one seat.
Yet UKIP pulled off what was perhaps the best performance of a new political party since the Second World War. The Party won 14 per cent of the vote in England (and 12.6 per cent across the UK); it finished second in more than 120 seats and won 20 per cent in at least 45 seats. In total it took four million votes – as many votes as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems put together.
In the South-West UKIP attracted protest voters and played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Lib Dems. In southern England it propped up the Conservatives. In many parts of northern England it replaced the Tories as the second political force. Above all else it gave Labour a serious kicking. The rise of UKIP that was expected to disproportionately hurt the Conservatives in fact undermined Labour’s performance more.
Evidence of the damage done to Labour could be seen all around. UKIP won nearly 30 per cent in Labour strongholds like Hartlepool in the North East, Rother Valley and Rotherham in Yorkshire and Dagenham and Rainham in outer London. It also took at least 18 per cent in the Welsh seats of Islwyn, Caerphilly and Merthyr Tydfil. In short it gained significant support from people whose traditional, expected party of choice, Labour, has long since stopped speaking to them.
This is not a new story.
As academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin point out, UKIP is the most working-class-dominated party since Michael Foot’s Labour in 1983. Lord Ashcroft has found that blue-collar UKIP voters outnumber their white-collar counterparts by a large margin: 42 per cent of UKIP voters work in blue-collar jobs or do not work at all, while a smaller percentage of 30 per cent hold professional middle-class jobs. In Labour, historically the party for the workers, the middle-classes have a narrow 36-35 lead.
UKIP addresses the needs and concerns of the ‘left behind’. Many of these are unskilled, socially conservative Labour voters who, as Ford and Goodwin put it “look out at a fundamentally different Britain: ethnically and culturally diverse; cosmopolitan; integrated in a transnational, European political network; dominated by a university-educated and more prosperous middle class that holds a radically different set of values, all of which is embraced and celebrated by those who rule over them.”
But the Conservative Party must not be complacent. Plenty of these ‘left behind’ voters are also Conservative voters and the referendum on Britain’s EU membership will bring new opportunities for this camp. Many Eurosceptics and social conservatives may have given Cameron the vote at the General Election but that does not mean they will necessarily be backing him in the years ahead. Cameron must use these next few months to stave off the UKIP threat by drawing in his reluctant voters and backbench MPs showing them that getting a better deal from Brussels is a top priority for his government.