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Is Ukip’s rebranding working?

That voters see the party as more left-wing than the Conservatives shows why it can take support off Labour. 

Even Nigel Farage accepts that Ukip is nearing the limit of its appeal to disaffected former Conservatives. The party's ability to grow depends on its ability to take votes from Labour – hence Farage’s bluster about putting his tanks on Ed Miliband's lawn. There are signs that it is working, too. Before 2013, Ukip took only one Labour vote for every nine they took from the Conservatives. But since January 2013, Labour has lost six voters to Ukip for every nine that Ukip has taken from the Conservatives. 

The rebranding of Ukip has taken three forms. The party, for so long hopeless at campaigning, has learned from the Liberal Democrats about the importance of relentless campaigning in by-elections – and sheer opportunism, as with the recent attacks on Labour’s left flank. As a disproportionate number of by-elections this parliament have occurred in northern seats, Ukip has become well versed in attacking Labour.

Ukip has also shifted its policies – and especially which ones it chooses to emphasise. Privately, many leading figures within the party do not consider the NHS viable in its current form. But the party has chosen to oppose not only the current government’s reforms, but also New Labour’s. "The NHS is a battle for another day," one party source tells me, reflecting how Ukip has decided that opposing all reform of the health service is the most fertile source of votes. Such populism is detectable in other policies, too. Ukip has flirted with the "wag tax" (until Farage shot down the idea) and party figures are even floating renationalising the railways. "I do think that we should be considering, and there should be an open debate at the moment, whether we should have nationalisation or [run the railways] through an organisation like a co-op," Steven Woolfe, the party’s financial affairs and migration spokesman, recently told me.

Finally, there has been a change in personnel in the party. To undermine the caricature of the party as one of disillusioned shire Tories, Ukip has pushed forward figures like Woolfe, Diane James and Paul Nuttall, who each have working class credentials. It is a long way from the last election when the party was led by Lord Pearson, an Eton-educated life peer, although the defection of two privately-educated Conservative MPs could yet undermine Ukip’s appeal to Labour supporters.

Labour has decided that its general election attack on Ukip will be to present the party as "the Tories on speed," as a shadow cabinet member puts it. "We’ve found that’s what works best." But Labour’s problem, as a new Comres poll shows, is that the electorate don't quite agree. Asked to put leaders and parties on a left-right scale of 0-10, they put Farage (6.59) and Ukip (6.61) to the left of David Cameron (6.81) and the Conservative Party (6.91).

This is very significant. For some voters who consider the Conservatives too right-wing to support, Ukip is a more palatable option. Though Ukip is significantly to the right of the average voter, the poll suggests that the party’s repositioning – away from libertarianism and towards the populism of a leftist and rightist bent favoured by the most successful anti-immigration parties on the continent – is proving successful. Ukip’s judgement is that many former Conservatives fuelled by resentment of David Cameron are now in the party to stay, so it can shift leftwards to try and broaden its appeal without alienating them. Labour has been warned.

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

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.