Ukip has come a long way in five years. Photo: Getty
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Maximising votes or MPs? Ukip's 2020 strategy

Ukip needs to decide whether it wants to maximise its total vote in 2015, or it wants to maximise its number of MPs.

Ukip’s conference feels very different to the grand conference venues favoured by the main three parties. Which, of course, is exactly the point. Doncaster Racecourse has been chosen to host Ukip’s conference to give it a grittier and more worldly feel than the three main parties’ offerings. Hell, at the media reception yesterday journalists, to their chagrin, even had to stump up for their own drinks.

But there is a very serious reason why Ukip has upped sticks to Doncaster this year, after slumming it with the metropolitan elite in London in 2013. It sends a very provocative message that Ukip is coming for Labour’s core vote.

The Racecourse is only a couple of miles away from the constituency of Doncaster North, seat of one Ed Miliband. While Ukip has no chance of winning there, the seat still stands as a symbol of Labour’s problems in its heartlands. The Labour vote here collapsed from 34,000 in 1992 to 19,000 in 2010. When Miliband mentioned his home in his conference speech, no one ever thought that he was referring to Doncaster North. “Whenever I go past his constituency office, it’s always closed,” complains a taxi driver from the Labour leader’s seat.

In Doncaster's three seats, Labour has lost 40,000 votes since 1992. Ukip’s choice of venue is therefore more than bluster. It reflects a desire to capitalise on the disconnect between MPs and the electorate in many traditional Labour seats. Above all, perhaps, it is pragmatic. There are not many more votes to be gained by the party on the right, so chasing them on the left is imperative for Ukip’s long-term future.

There are a couple of ‘Old Labour’ seats that could turn purple in May 2015. In Great Grimsby, for instance, the number of Labour voters collapsed from 25,000 in 1997 to 10,000 in 2010. Now, with Labour’s arch-Eurosceptic MP Austin Mitchell standing down, Ukip is poised to pounce.

But Ukip’s strategy of targeting Labour voters is about more than just 2015. As one Ukip MEP put it to me, “We’ve got a 2020 strategy.” A string of strong second-placed finishes in traditional Labour seats would set Ukip up for 2020. If Ukip becomes established as the most likely challengers to Labour in its heartlands, it would be ideally placed to benefit from an unpopular Labour government.

It all speaks of the ambition of Ukip. The party has a set of policies that extend far beyond Europe. It intends to be much more than a pressure group agitating for an EU referendum, but an intrinsic new part of Britain’s new political landscape.

Yet there is a basic tension in Ukip’s strategy, as the MEP I talked to accepted. The first-past-the-post strategy is unforgiving to small parties who try and over-reach. Ukip needs to decide whether it wants to maximise its total vote in 2015, or it wants to maximise its number of MPs after the election. It cannot do both.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.