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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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.