Labour remain ahead in European election poll, but who'll triumph in May?

UKIP trails Labour by six points but, as in 2009, the party is hoping for a late surge in the polls.

Nigel Farage has been predicting for months that UKIP will win this May's European elections but the latest poll, in common with all other recent surveys, shows Labour remain ahead. YouGov's poll for the Sun puts Miliband's party on 32%, UKIP on 26%, the Tories on 23% and the Lib Dems on 9% (which would leave them with no MEPs on a uniform swing). 

Given this, you might expect Farage to be lowering expectations, but he remains confident that his party will triumph on 22 May. UKIP figures point out that they only moved into second place in the final weeks of the 2009 campaign after a late surge (aided in part by the expenses scandal). On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7%, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18%, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5%, finishing in second place, 0.8% ahead of Labour. While recognising that the race will be tight, UKIP strategists are hoping to pull off a narrow victory this time round. 

But the year has not started as they would have wanted. Farage has long vowed to turn the European elections into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration but the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were rlifted on 1 January (just 24 Romanians have entered the UK, according to the country's ambassador) means he may now struggle to do so. Labour enjoys the advantage of simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Party strategists hope that enough voters whose default setting is to put a cross in the Labour box will turn out for the party to see off the Farageist threat (my own prediction is that it will). 

If Labour do finish second, the consoling factor will be that the Tories, for the first time in a national election, will have finished third. While Conservatives hope that such a result is already "priced in", the danger remains that it will prompt another insurrection from Tory backbenchers determined for their party to adopt an even tougher line on Europe. This would detract from the party's central message that Labour can't be trusted to manage the economy and ensure that it continues to obsess over an issue of little or no interest to most voters.

As polling by Ipsos MORI has long shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of the public's concerns. Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is "a sideshow" for most of them. He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people."

For the Lib Dems, the worst case scenario is that they finish fifth, behind the Greens (who won 8% of the vote last time round). At the Lib Dem conference last year, one senior party activist suggested to me that this prompt a leadership challenge against Clegg. With a year to go until the general election, there would be still be just enough time to send for Cable or Farron. 

More than on any previous occasion, all three of the main party leaders have good reason to dread the count on 22 May. 

Nigel Farage prepares to speak at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester Town Hall on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.