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17 March 2015

Labour must use Nigel Farage’s unpopularity to hurt David Cameron

Labour can turn the tables on the Conservatives - by using Ukip against them just as the Tories have used the SNP.

By Ben Dilks

Ed Miliband has finally ruled out the prospect of a coalition with the Scottish nationalists, over a week after the Conservatives launched their attack ad depicting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket.

Some may view this as a coup for the Tories. In reality the actual impact of Miliband’s pledge is limited by the fact he has not dismissed a more informal power-sharing agreement. There is now, however, an opportunity for Labour to ensure David Cameron’s dangerous game of shifting the spotlight onto the politics of possible post-election deals backfires.

This weekend Ukip signalled a deal with the Tories could still be on the cards, with Nigel Farage highlighting the “possible scenario” of his party – alongside a willing DUP – taking up “a similar role to that of the Liberal Democrats now”.

Cameron has consistently refused to rule out such a deal with Ukip. When George Osborne was challenged on the issue in the light of his party’s attacks on Labour he defended the position, arguing that because of the number of seats in play the Tories’ choice was “fundamentally different” to that faced by Labour.

While it is fair to say the SNP will likely win more seats than Ukip, making it a bigger player in the power wrangling that would follow another hung parliament, it is a mistake to underestimate the symbolic significance to many voters of the Tories’ apparent willingness to clamber into bed with Ukip. Labour would be foolish not to exploit this.

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While Nigel Farage seems to have cemented his popularity with a chunk of the electorate, Ukip is still by far the most disliked party; Ipsos MORI reported yesterday that 64 per cent of voters ‘dislike’ Ukip – a significantly higher negative rating than received by any other party.

Analysis of the possible impact on Labour of Ukip’s rise has tended to focus on the possible erosion of the party’s working-class ‘core vote’. In the swing seats that will decide the outcome of the election, however, the greater threat to Labour is arguably that centrist floating voters will back a Conservative party that, by virtue of being outflanked on the right by Ukip, is automatically framed as occupying the centre ground.

Labour’s core campaign narrative in response to Ukip has long been ‘vote Ukip, get the Tories’. This may well have a limited impact in curtailing the risk of some traditional Labour voters deserting to Ukip. A message of far greater impact in many key Tory-Labour marginals, however, would be ‘vote Tory, get Ukip’ – in other words, Labour must warn that voting for the somewhat more moderate Conservatives carries with it the risk of bringing Nigel Farage into government following a post-election deal.

David Cameron has gone to extensive efforts in his attempts to detoxify the Conservative party brand in an attempt to recapture the centre ground of British politics. While the Tories refuse to rule out sharing power with Nigel Farage, Labour has a duty to constantly remind voters that a vote for the old ‘nasty party’ and a vote for the new ‘nasty party’ are one and the same.