Anindya Bhattacharyya analyses UKIP’s success in Thursday’s two by-elections.
One of the peculiarities of mainstream political chatter is its tendency to seize on the unexpected and discount long-term predictable trends. The response to Thursday’s by-elections is a case in point: UKIP’s Douglas Carswell was expected to win in Clacton, so no surprises there, but the Heywood & Middleton vote was much closer than expected – cue much wailing about UKIP’s mortal threat in Labour heartlands.
What are we to make of all this? My take is that Labour didn’t do as badly in Heywood & Middleton as the current panic might suggest. UKIP does, however, pose a threat to Labour – but it is Clacton that best dramatises this, not Heywood. And underlying all the surface turmoil are certain deep trends that the radical left should pay close attention to.
What happened in Heywood & Middleton?
This seat in the north east of Greater Manchester came vacant with the death of Jim Dobbin. It was assumed to be “safe Labour”, yet UKIP came within a whisker of nabbing it, polling 39% to Labour’s 41%.
UKIP has trumpeted this as proof that they are attracting “Old Labour” voters and not just disaffected Tories. Labour politicians have echoed this with warnings that the party is neglecting its core vote. What this means exactly is less clear: for some it means a return to social democratic policies that help working class voters, for others it is code for pandering further to racist prejudices and unfounded fears about immigrants.
Turnout at the byelection was 36% as compared to 58% at the 2010 general election. This actually isn’t too bad for a by-election, and certainly better than some of the dismal turnouts for by-elections in 2012. But fewer people bothered voting, and we don’t know whether that abstention hit all parties equally or some more than others. My guess is that UKIP voters were probably keener to make their mark than Labour supporters.
In percentage terms however, Labour’s share rose slightly from 40% to 41%. This contrasts to the Tories, who fell from 27% to 12%, the Lib Dems, who fell from 23% to 5%, and the BNP, which polled 7% last time but didn’t stand this time round. The Greens, who didn’t stand in the general election, took 3% of the vote.
I drew the diagram on the right on Thursday night to make sense of these numbers. To my horror/joy it ended up going a bit “viral” on Twitter and attracting some entirely reasonable criticisms. So I should make clear that the red numbers in the diagram are speculative: they indicate abstract net flows plus some guesswork – they do not represent what any real voters really did. It is quite likely, for instance, that large numbers of Labour voters switched to UKIP but were balanced out by former Lib Dems switching to Labour to stop UKIP. These kind of “churn” effects can only be measured with proper empirical studies as opposed to 2a.m. doodles on my part.
Nevertheless I think this kind of simplified picture tells you something about the overall dynamics at work here. The truth is Heywood & Middleton was not a “safe Labour” seat – rather the right wing vote in the constituency was split between the Tories, Lib Dems, BNP and UKIP. What happened was UKIP consolidated that vote around a hard racist message: Labour doesn’t care about people like you, it only cares about the ethnic minorities, look at how they turned a blind eye to sexual abuse because of political correctness etc. Labour in contrast campaigned on an anti-UKIP ticket, warning their supporters that UKIP would take the seat if they didn’t turn out to vote. This shored it up enough to win on the night – despite the frightening consolidation on the right.
What happened in Clacton?
If we look at Clacton a rather different picture emerges. I mentioned in my analysis of the Euro elections that the polarisation in politics plays out unevenly: while areas like the North West saw spikes in both UKIP and Labour votes, areas like Essex and East Anglia are seeing a boost for UKIP but a much weaker rise in the Labour vote. And while the Labour vote share held up in Heywood & Middleton it collapsed in Clacton as voters of all colours rallied to Douglas Carswell’s libertarian spin on the UKIP agenda.
UKIP didn’t stand in 2010 but polled 60% at Thursday’s by-election. So we can get a feel for where this support might have come from by looking at the drops in the other parties’ vote shares (again with the caveats above about net figures, churn effects and so on). When we do that we see a 28 point fall in the Tory vote, a 14 point drop for Labour, 12 points for the Lib Dems and 5 points for the BNP (who stood in 2010 but not this time). This pie chart shows how the shares stack up. Turnout overall held up reasonably well, down from 64% at the general election to 51%.
The Clacton result was widely trailed as the perfect storm for UKIP – a popular local MP switching sides, combined with ideal demographics according to the profile of potential UKIP voters compiled by social scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. It is the most UKIP-friendly seat in the country according to their analysis, and it delivered an easy win for a rebranded Carswell. So it gives us a window into what happens to UKIP when they are at their strongest.
Part of this picture is similar to Heywood & Middleton: the Tories lose half their vote share, the Liberal Democrats just get smashed. But what is noticeable is that Labour failed to hold its share or act as any kind of a pole of attraction for anti-UKIP sentiment (which must exist, even in Clacton). Instead around half its vote share ended up in UKIP’s camp, just as with the Tories. Clacton is a situation where UKIP really did break out of its middle class base and eat into the working class Labour vote. It is a warning of what might happen elsewhere if UKIP’s rise is unchecked.
Bear in mind Labour came second in Clacton in 2010 with 25% of the vote. Its predecessor seat, Harwich, was held by Labour from 1997 to 2005. The constituency includes Jaywick, the most deprived area in England according to government statistics. Clacton’s elderly population might be more amenable to UKIP’s bigotry than the average citizen, but they should also be more amenable to Labour’s message on the NHS. There is no reason in principle why Labour did so badly in Clacton. The problem is decades of weak labour movement organisation in the South and East of England – compounded by a failure of nerve that looks set to be repeated in Rochester, where according to press reports Labour has already thrown in the towel.
What are the deep trends driving this turmoil?
To summarise: in the short term, things aren’t so bad for Labour. UKIP’s primary effect is to take chunks out of the Tory vote, which splits the right and works in Labour’s advantage. In the longer term, however, the problems start to pile up. As UKIP gets stronger it starts eating into the right of Labour’s vote. Labour’s likely response to this will be to announce that it is getting “tougher” on immigration – which only boosts the mindset that leads people to vote UKIP in the first place. A race to the bottom ensues.
The party could, of course, follow a different course, planting a flag in the ground for some basic social democratic ideals and rallying all those repelled by UKIP’s petty bigotry (and there are plenty of people repelled by it, which is why Farage is very careful around these subjects, picking exactly what to say and exactly when to say it). But this would involve a sharp turn left that would break with Labour’s past practice. Don’t hold your breath.
Sitting underneath all this are certain long-term trends that are worth noting. Britain’s electoral system is built around the assumption that there are two main parties and everyone votes for one of them. This assumption more or less held true in the decades after the Second World War. But it has been progressively getting weaker. Fewer people vote these days, and those that do are far more likely to vote for alternatives to Labour or the Tories. The Liberal Democrats benefited from this for many years until the political centre ground they were perched on collapsed. Now you see the rise of radical right formations like UKIP causing headaches for the Tories, or alternative social democratic parties like the SNP creating havoc for Labour north of the border. All of this turmoil is amplified by a first-past-the-post electoral system that tries to induce a binary choice from electoral behaviour that increasingly does not fit that model.
Related to and running alongside this longterm break-up of the two party system are the effects of neoliberal capitalism in its post-crisis austerity mode. Rising inequality looks like being a permanent feature of the system, which even right wing economists are beginning to get bothered by. The widening gulf between masses and elites creates problems for all political parties that rely on some kind of democratic legitimation. Ford and Goodwin characterise UKIP voters as the “left behind” – older, socially conservative, pessimistic about the future. But they aren’t the only ones to be disaffected by the political status quo. There is also, I’d wager, a “left out” constituency of younger workers with more progressive views on race, immigration, sexuality etc, people who are actively angry about the future rather than passively despondent. If there is any social base for a revival of the radical left, it will be here.
In the meantime there’s plenty of anti-UKIP campaigning on the ground to be getting on with. Some of this will work, some of this won’t. All these initiatives deserve support and critical analysis. But if we don’t start building a hardline anti-racist current in British society – one that defends migrants from mainstream attacks and not just those peddled by the likes of UKIP – the slide to the right will accelerate.