If Ed Miliband gets into Downing Street, he will forever be in Douglas Carswell’s debt. Such has been the reaction to Carswell’s decision to switch from the Conservatives to Ukip. Since Ukip takes significantly more votes from the Tories than anyone else, the right’s split could benefit Labour in much the same way as the left’s split benefited the Conservatives in the 1980s.
Yet Carswell’s defection poses a challenge for Labour, too. Just because Ukip will hurt the Conservatives more in 2015 does not mean that Labour can afford to be blasé about the threat. Eight of the ten seats that Ukip are most likely to win in 2015 are Labour-held, according to analysis by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin in Revolt on the Right. In these seats, Carswell’s manouevre is bad news for Labour: the more popular Ukip is, the more vulnerable these Labour seats are. The presence of a Ukip MP in Westminster will give the party momentum and a likely influx of donations, both of which should make a number of Labour MPs very twitchy.
Should Carswell win the Clacton by-election, it will also reveal a new phenomenon: natural Conservatives voting tactically for Ukip. It is one that has worrying implications for Labour. The toxicity of the Conservative brand – 40 per cent of voters say they would never vote Tory – has protected Labour in many seats, even as its vote has fallen and electoral turnout has collapsed. There are a lot of northerners whose views – especially on welfare, immigration and crime – chime with the Tories, but who would never, ever vote for them. This presents an opportunity for Ukip.
Take Great Grimsby. It has long been regarded as a safe Labour seat, but the party lost 15,000 votes between 1997 and 2010, when Austin Mitchell was elected with only 32.7 per cent of the vote. The Conservative brand may not be strong enough to win there, but what of Ukip? By uniting the anti-Labour vote – a coalition of normal Conservative voters and disenchanted non-voters and Labourites – Ukip should give Labour reason to doubt that they will be able to hold onto the seat. The Ukip candidate in Great Grimsby, Victoria Ayling, almost won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010. Like Carswell, therefore, she is ideally placed to get hordes of Tory voters to plump for Ukip.
Not that Mitchell thinks so. “Great Grimbsy is a safe seat,” the constituency’s retiring MP told me. “It’s a Labour seat.” Such an attitude doesn’t amount to much of a strategy to combat Ukip.
In the short-term, Ukip’s rise will benefit Labour more than the Conservatives. But, even in next year’s general election, the party could deprive Labour of several MPs – either by ousting Labour or winning a seat from the Conservatives that should be within the opposition’s grasp. In Thurrock, the Tories only have a lead of 92 over Labour. If Labour are to become the largest party next year, let alone win an overall majority, such a seat ought to be turning red with ease. Yet Lord Ashcroft’s recent poll of the constituency had Ukip on course to win the seat; Ukip also lead in another top Labour target, Thanet South. As Rob Ford suggests, in seats such as these, it appears as if Ukip may be taking more votes from Labour than the Tories.
And the rise of Ukip also means that more political debate will move on to areas that Labour is uncomfortable discussing: Europe and immigration. As shadow minister Lisa Nandy recently told me: “The forces in British politics at the moment are all on the right”.
If Labour is complacent to the Ukip threat, it may regret it in 2015 and beyond. Should it form a government, Ukip will be ideally placed to benefit from working class discontent with the party. In many seats, Ukip could challenge Labour more than the Conservatives ever have. Labour complacency to the Ukip threat will soon look like folly.