Nigel Farage speaks at the UKIP spring conference in the Riviera International on February 28, 2014 in Torquay. Photograph: Getty Images.
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UKIP is a threat to Labour - but not in the north

Miliband's northern fortresses are safe but Farage's party could prevent Labour winning southern and eastern marginals off the Tories in 2015.

After initially being viewed as a threat to the Tories alone, much has been written recently about the challenge UKIP poses to Labour. The academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, whose book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain is published next week, have studied this issue more than anyone else. As they point out in today's Guardian, it is wrong to view the typical UKIP voter as a retired colonel enraged by EU directives and gay marriage. Rather, the party draws much of its support from working class voters (many of whom voted Labour in 2005 before defecting to the Tories in 2010) alienated by the collapse in living standards and the lack of good jobs. Goodwin and Ford write: 

Don't think of Ukip as just a party; think of them as a symptom of far deeper social and value divisions in Britain. Farage is winning over working-class, white male voters because they feel left behind by Britain's rapid economic and social transformation and left out of our political conversation; struggling people who feel like strangers in a society whose ruling elites do not talk like them or value the things which matter to them.

This should ring loud alarm bells on the left. In a time of falling incomes, rising inequality and spending cuts, such voters should be lining up behind the party that traditionally stood for social protection and redistribution. Instead, they are switching their loyalty to a right-wing party headed by a stockbroker and staffed by activists who worship Thatcher. Those who are getting hit hardest by the crisis and austerity are turning not to Labour, but to Farage for solutions.

They and others point to UKIP's impressive by-election performances in Labour-held northern seats such as South Shields, Rotherham and Middlesbrough as evidence that Ed Miliband, as well as David Cameron, should be looking nervously over his shoulder. It is indeed impressive that a party many dismissed as irrelevant after its failure to win a seat in 2010, has become the de facto opposition in parts of the north. But as far as 2015 is concerned, none of this matters. If UKIP does win any seats (and it may not), they won't be in the north. At worst for Labour, its huge majorities will be reduced to merely large ones. More likely, UKIP will struggle to repeat its by-election performances (which are a poor guide to general election outcomes) and Miliband's party will increase its dominance. 

Goodwin and Ford suggest that the real threat to Labour (assuming it wins power) will come in 2020 when the party will face "an ageing population; straining public services; high migration from poorer EU states; persistent inequality; and the economic and fiscal overhang of the worst crisis for 80 years", and when UKIP "will be a known alternative". But this argument involves many too unreliable assumptions. UKIP would almost certainly suffer from the return of the Tories to opposition (nearly half of its supporters voted Conservative in 2010) and the replacement of Cameron as leader. It will struggle to maintain momentum if and when Nigel Farage (who has pledged to resign as leader if the party fails to win a seat in 2015) steps down, and will have to work for decades, not years, before it can dream of taking seats off Labour. 

It's for reasons like these that some Labour supporters dismiss the alleged "threat" to the party as non-existent. But this view is similarly mistaken. UKIP is a threat to Labour's election chances, but not in the way most people think. Rather than Miliband's northern fortresses, the seats to watch are the Tory-held marginals in the south and east of England (Lincoln, Ipswich, Thurrock, Northampton North, Harlow, Norwich North) that Labour needs to win to achieve a majority. As psephologist Lewis Baston has noted, "In some of them, where either Ukip is exceptionally strong or there is a close contest between the Conservatives and Labour, Ukip topped the poll in 2013. In others, such as Ipswich, the Ukip surge of 2013 seemed to reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives." 

The danger for Labour is the possibility that Tory defectors could return home in 2015, while Labour defectors stay put. By successfully appealing to the working class voters Miliband needs to win, UKIP could create a split in the opposition vote that allows the Conservatives to hang on. Forget 2020 and fantasies of UKIP replacing Labour as the northern party of choice, the two are locked in a struggle right now that could determine whether Miliband enters Downing Street at all. 

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.