In the background for now at least, the long and important Labour leadership battle rages on

David Miliband launches campaign against VAT rise +++ Ed Balls benefits from Question Time bounce ++

Amid the controversy surrounding the government's benefit cuts that are serving as small print for discussion following the Budget, the long-drawn-out Labour leadership contest continues to run, the other, less-noticed story in British politics today. So, time for a quick update on the three main players:

** David Miliband has launched a campaign against the increase in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, which the Lib Dems themselves had opposed and which even the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has labelled "regressive". He is writing to each Lib Dem MP setting out why they should vote against the move in the Budget. Miliband has also criticised the record on schooling of successive governments -- including Labour administrations -- and called for the removal of the "obstacle course" of constant exams for students from the age of 14 onward.

** In Westminster, Ed Balls is considered to have done his campaign no harm with his feisty performance on BBC1's Question Time last week, during which he tore into the "stooge" Vince Cable over the Budget and over the reversal of critical Lib Dem policy lines -- including the position on VAT -- that had provided cover for the party. Yesterday, Balls made the running on Iain Duncan Smith's plans for reallocating the jobless, likening it to Norman Tebbit's call for the unemployed to get "on your bike".

** And Ed Miliband sets out his case for "values" over "management" in politics in a ten-minute interview for the BBC's Daily Politics. In it, he says that he is a politician of the "centre ground" but that he is in politics to "shape that centre ground from the left". Miliband notes that it wasn't just people "on the left" who were outraged at the banking crisis, for example, and claims that he could reach out beyond Labour's core vote. Incidentally, he admits to having a "geekish" background, but defends his career, which has been largely in politics. He also confirms that he and his brother, David, told each other that it would be "quite wrong" to stand in one another's way when both men decided to stand for the leadership.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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