What the SNP's breakthrough tells us about UKIP's prospects

As it was for the "Tartan Tories", the real test for UKIP is not whether it can take votes off the Conservatives but whether it can build a broader long-term coalition.

Today politicians are fearful of the potential "breakthrough" of a nationalist separatist party with a charismatic leader. No, not Alex Salmond and the SNP, but Nigel Farage and UKIP. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two parties are striking. When you consider that both are obsessed with constitutional politics and plebiscites; both are derided for their collection of "fruit cakes"; both admire the right-wing economic policies of Margaret Thatcher; both stand on a none-of-the-above party platform, challenging the political establishment; and, ultimately, both believe that the blame for all life’s woes lie with membership of a certain union.

So should this worry us? Not necessarily. If there is one thing that we can learn from Scotland, it is that the voters are able to differentiate between different elections. For example, although the SNP did unbelievably well in 2011, the year before, in the UK general election, they stood by and watched Labour consolidate their position as the main party of Scotland at Westminster.

And according to recent opinion polls, they still command solid support at the Scottish Parliament, despite six years in government, although this is not the case in recent UK polls. In addition, if every single opinion poll on the referendum is to be believed, then their entire raison d'être, separatism, will be resoundingly rejected next year. Yet it is from history that we should view this nationalist success, and measure the potential success of UKIP.

The SNP's breakthrough in Scotland did not happen in 2011, nor in 2007 as some would have us believe, but rather over time, and can be traced back to the void created by the 1960s decline of the Tories in Scotland, which the SNP helped to fill, as well as the start of distrust of the three main parties among the Scottish electorate. This was first noticed when the SNP started to win local elections, and come strong runners up in by-elections like the one in West Lothian in 1962, where it scooped most of the Conservative votes. Since then, many of its strongholds are in what were once Conservative areas. Hence the old SNP nickname north of the border:"the Tartan Tories".

They manoeuvred to collect these initial votes through their embrace of previously Tory values around tradition and, most obviously nationalism, as well as an ownership of rural issues; depicting Westminster as distant and unrepresentative; oh and the argument that membership of the union was not only expensive, but somehow that Scotland was subsidising England. Sound familiar?

Nonetheless, this was nothing new. Despite the Tories winning half the Scottish vote in 1955, Scotland has long voted disproportionately for centre-left parties. For most of the 19th century, it was as sterile towards the Tories as it is today. Thus there was no future for the SNP in remaining "Tartan Tories". The smart thing the party did was not just to provide a hearse for Scottish conservatives, but also a vehicle that can be boarded by social democratic Scots as well.

Of course these were long term changes. More recently, in the last decade, the SNP, via devolution and local government, was able to portray itself as a more credible party of government that could be trusted with the keys to the public coffers, helped by competent and charismatic leadership.

The real test of UKIP’s prospects, then, is not if it take Tory votes, but if it can substantially spread its vote more widely, like the other main nationalist separatist party in these isles has done. It is not until UKIP builds this sort of coalition among the electorate, as the SNP has done in Scotland, that people can truly claim to be witnessing a "breakthrough".

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.