Why the rise of UKIP is good for the Lib Dems

The party's surge will make it harder for the Tories to take seats off the Lib Dems and could revive the debate around electoral reform.

While there’s no point trying to pretend last week’s by-election results were anything other than awful for the Lib Dems, the silver lining comes from a surprising direction – the success of UKIP. For while the Lib Dems and UKIP are poles apart philosophically, there are some huge in-built electoral advantages to the former in the rise of the latter

Nationally, a fall in the Lib Dem share of vote is ultimately more likely to benefit Labour in the 2015 election – a fact which is well understood in No. 10, and why Nick is allowed a fair amount of Tory bashing. But from the Lib Dem end of the telescope, there are a lot of Lib Dem seats where the Tories run us a close second. Hence the Conservative target seats now being published include a high percentage of Lib Dem-held marginals – half of them in fact.

But a rise in the UKIP share of the vote throws that plan into trouble. Few core Lib Dem voters are likely to switch to UKIP in those constituencies – but a rise in the UKIP vote is likely to hit the Tories hard. Maybe not enough for UKIP to win – but certainly enough to stop the Tories getting past the Lib Dem incumbent.

Secondly, the Tories need to respond to the UKIP surge – and will want to rush to the right. And any move to the right by the Tories to counter UKIP leaves more of the centre ground open to the Lib Dems, just as the differentiation strategy needs it.

But these are just tactical advantages to the Lib Dems. There’s a greater prize. As the excellent Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson points out, the inherent unfairness of UKIP polling at 10 per cent but gaining zero Westminster seats in a general election (thanks to first-past-the-post) is likely to reignite the debate around electoral reform. The net effect of a UKIP surge removing votes from the Tories and at the same time handing Labour a landslide election victory is likely to energise the debate about proportional representation (PR) on the right.

And every Lib Dem wants the PR debate and electoral reform at the top of the political agenda. So, rather than resulting in our demise, the surge in UKIP support could actually be the saving grace for the Lib Dems. Funny old world, politics.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.