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25 March 2024updated 26 Mar 2024 12:07pm

How Reform could pose a threat to Labour

The Tories now have a pool of re-engaged right-wing voters to target at the general election.

By Ben Walker

The recent Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections didn’t see a stunning share of support for Reform UK. It was the dramatic swings to Labour that were the story of the night. But Reform’s double-digit vote shares were, for the first time, in line with polling forecasts. Up to this point, the party had dramatically underperformed then. Myself and others dismissed their polling numbers as more phantom than fact because whenever the ballot boxes came out, Reform’s vote did not.

Now, if the polls are to be believed, Reform will win two to three million votes at the next general election, if not more. Any MPs? Unlikely. Such is the reality of first-past-the-post and there is little evidence of concentrated organisation on Reform’s part to rectify that.

It is the Conservatives who will suffer the overwhelming share of the damage from Reform’s rise. As former YouGov president Peter Kellner points out, Reform’s support base, unlike Ukip’s, is almost entirely comprised of former Tory supporters. Ukip, by contrast, also attracted what Nigel Farage called an “old Labour” vote, one which saw the party finish just 617 votes behind Labour in the Heywood and Middleton by-election in 2014.

Crucially, those Ukip voters went on to defect almost wholesale to the Tories in 2017 and 2019. So the political history of Reform’s supporters is perhaps more varied than it appears at first sight – at one point they were voting Labour.

The other data-point to note about Reform’s current supporters is that they are vociferously anti-Labour. While a significant proportion of Tory undecideds, and indeed current Tory voters, are actually unperturbed by the idea of a Keir Starmer premiership, Reform voters are anything but. The Labour Party is anathema to them.

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It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, that those most vexed by immigration and culture war issues might be the least impressed with today’s Labour Party. And a bit of reverse thinking here suggests that Keir Starmer’s party could yet pay a price. 

Labour’s poll lead over the Tories (just over 20 points) has barely shifted over the last year. This isn’t to say, however, that there hasn’t been churn. Labour’s enduring lead has, in part, been a consequence of Tory voters defecting to Reform, offsetting the minor gains made by Rishi Sunak since he succeeded Liz Truss in October 2022.

Until the latter half of 2022, Reform’s current supporters were highly apathetic and unwilling to turn out and therefore magnified Labour’s projected poll lead. Now, however, in so-called Red Wall seats, more Tory voters are breaking for Reform than for Labour (according to polling by Redfield and Wilton). 

Rather than leaving the democratic process, these voters are staying in it. They’re remaining engaged and not switching off. In marketing speak, that means they remain customers. 

And they might yet end up Conservative supporters. The feeling of distrust towards the Tory brand is nothing compared to the resentment felt towards Labour. These voters are anti-politics voters. They wouldn’t like to swing back towards the governing party. But when faced with the devil you hate, versus the devil you don’t particularly like, you may opt to vote tactically. 

A forgotten lesson of the Tories’ surprise 2015 majority was the manner in which the Conservatives campaigned in Lib Dem heartlands. They identified voters not traditionally supportive and posed the question: who would you prefer? A government led by Ed Miliband? Or one led by David Cameron? Those who backed the latter were specifically targeted in what was dubbed the “black widow strategy”: after mating with their coalition partners, the Tories killed them. No fewer than 27 Lib Dem seats fell to the Tories, most notably in the south-west. It is quite possible that the Conservatives will adopt a similar strategy towards Reform voters.

The evidence thus far is that as many as one in three Reform voters could be dragged into the Tory column. And this number may grow further as the prospect of a Starmer government becomes an imminent event as opposed to an abstract one. The existence of Reform makes previously disengaged voters very much engaged and therefore a threat to the Conservatives. But the existence of Reform also makes their vote, if duly squeezed by the Tories, a threat to Labour too. 

The politics of a plague on all your houses will, forever remain, a plague on all your houses.

[See also: One in ten Conservative voters have died since 2019]

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