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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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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