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.