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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation