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 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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage