UKIP needs to learn to manage expectations

After Farage's promise to "cause an earthquake", anything less than first in the European elections will be deemed a failure - and the polls suggest Labour may well win.

For months, the default assumption in Westminster and at the bookmakers has been that UKIP will win the European elections in May. It is a belief that Nigel Farage has done much to encourage, regularly promising to "cause an earthquake" by vanquishing Labour and the Tories. The polls, however, continue to tell a stubbornly different story. All three of the surveys conducted in the last month (by YouGov, Survation and ICM) have shown Labour in front, with today's ICM poll for the Guardian putting UKIP down in third place on 20 per cent, with the Tories on 25 per cent and Labour on 35 per cent (although it is worth noting that ICM's decision to discount the preferences of 50 per cent of those who didn't vote last time may have artificially depressed UKIP's share). 

UKIP figures insist they are not fazed by these figures, pointing out that the party traditionally gains heavily once the campaign proper begins. In the case of 2009 European elections, it only moved into second place a few weeks before polling day. On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7 per cent, 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 per cent, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5 per cent, finishing 0.8 per cent ahead of Labour. 

But while the same may be true this time round, some are rightly beginning to ask whether the party has failed to manage expectations. My own prediction has long been for a narrow Labour victory, with Miliband's party benefiting from simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Unlike in 2009, when UKIP was far less well known, it will not enjoy such a large publicity surge, or be able to exploit the expenses scandal, which broke just a few weeks before polling day. the year has not started as they would have wanted. In addition, while Farage has long vowed to turn the election into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were lifted on 1 January means he may find it harder to do so.

The danger for UKIP is that, owing to Farage's loose rhetoric, finishing second will now be viewed as a failure. As party donor Stuart Wheeler astutely observed in an interview with the New Statesman last year, "I’m getting slightly nervous because people seem to be so confident we’ll win, it will almost look like a failure if we don’t." There are signs that some in the party now recognise the need to engage in some shrewd expectation management. Rather than echoing Farage's prediction of an "earthquake", UKIP's new director of communications, former Daily Express columnist Patrick O'Flynn, is speaking of how the elections will be "a tough fight" and the party takes "nothing for granted". He would be wise to encourage his leader to adopt a similarly modest tone. 

The same should apply to the party's likely performance in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election on Thursday. Again, largely thanks to Farage, the belief that UKIP is on the brink of a parliamentary breakthrough (including, or even especially, in Labour-held seats) has been planted in the minds of Westminster pundits and betmakers. Toby Young, for instance, recently wrote:

It will be enormously helpful if Ukip wins the forthcoming by-election in the constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. That is not as far-fetched as you might think, as Mike Smithson points out in this post for PoliticalBetting.com. Since 2011, Ukip have come second in five by-elections – Eastleigh, South Shields, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and Middlesbrough – and the party did well in local elections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in 2012. Last night, Lord Ashcroft tweeted that betting on the outcome of the by-election had been temporarily suspended, suggesting that the bookies were busy recalculating the odds of a Ukip victory after several large bets had been placed on precisely that outcome.

The extent to which these forecasts were off-target was revealed when a poll by Lord Ashcroft put Labour 46 points ahead of Farage's party.

To finish second in a seat where it polled just 3 per cent in 2010 would be a significant achievement for UKIP. But somehow the party has allowed itself to be placed in a position where anything less than first is deemed a failure. If it is to retain momentum, it needs this to change. Indeed, it is when UKIP learns to play the expectations game that we will know it has truly arrived as a professional political party.

Nigel Farage will have some explaining to do if UKIP finishes second in the European elections. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour must unite idealists and nativists to beat Ukip

The party has no coherent economic policy, says Labour donor John Mills. 

The heart of the dilemma faced by Labour is that, by and large, its working-class supporters think that you should look after your own first and everyone else afterwards, while its more idealistic middle-class supporters don’t share these nativist views. Add to this the fact that the Labour party nowadays is more middle class, more internationalist, more public sector-orientated, more metropolitan, more intellectual and less interested in winning elections than it has ever been before, and you can see why Ukip is a huge potential threat.

Ukip started by attracting mainly disaffected Conservative voters who thought their party was weak on the EU and who didn’t like David Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues. More recently, especially during the EU referendum, Ukip picked up a huge amount of Labour support. Of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, close to 3.5m of them voted for Leave – and half of these people say they are not going to vote Labour in future. Where are they going to go?

The crucial issue is whether Ukip, having gone through all its recent traumas, will get its act together to scoop up these footloose voters. Up to now, the glue which has held Ukip together has been hostility to the EU and distrust of the political establishment. It has lacked coherent policy. This leaves Ukip still essentially a protest operation rather than as a potentially governing party. But this could change. 

With Labour now increasingly idealistic rather than nativist, Ukip may pull together a string of policies that promise support for working-class solidarity, immigration restrictions, social conservatism and a reindustrialisation plan – very much the platform which won Donald Trump the US presidency. Such a manifesto could attract sufficiently widespread working-class support to make large numbers of Labour seats vulnerable. Ukip came second in 120 constituencies during the 2015 general election. There doesn’t have to be a very large swing for Ukip to start picking up enough seats to make the prospect of a future Labour government more and more remote.

Faced with this prospect, what can Labour do? Three key strategies suggest themselves. One is to avoid alienating potential Labour supporters by trying to persuade them that they should have voted Remain. On the contrary, the party must clearly accept the referendum result, and fight hard and constructively towards getting the best possible Brexit deal. 

Second, Ukip is weak on economic policy. It is all very well to promise reindustrialisation and better jobs, but how is Ukip going to fulfil them? Populism shades very easily into protectionism. There is a principled case for open markets to produce more prosperity - but this may only be possible if there are also changes to monetary and exchange rate policy to avoid unmanageable commercial competition. Ukip may, like the Labour party, find this a hard case to make.

Third, Labour needs to change its tone. There needs to be less talk of abstract universal values and more of concrete steps to improve people’s lives. Labour must celebrate working-class attitudes to self-help, trade unionism, mutual support, patriotism and solidarity. The party must build on the huge influx of members, not least because they are the cadres for the future, but it also must avoid alienating old supporters with many years of experience and commitment. It is up to the party leadership to create such a change.

As it stands, too many Labour people are still trying to derail Brexit. The party has no coherent economic policy and it still looks too London-centric, divorced from its working-class roots. Not a good place to be if Ukip pulls itself together. 

John Mills is a businessman and a Labour donor. He founded the group Labour Leave ahead of the EU referendum and has recently published the pamphlet "Why Trump Won"