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5 May 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:15pm

Ukip? What Ukip? Polls show the Conservatives don’t need a gateway drug

For some former Labour and Lib Dem supporters, Ukip has been a "gateway drug" to voting Tory. But, as last night's election results show, others have gone straight for the hard stuff.   

By Chris Curtis

The rise of the UK Independence Party is fundamental to understanding the last two electoral cycles,  and its fall will be key to analysing the upcoming campaign. In 2010, Ukip gained 3.1 per cent of the vote but by 2015 this swelled to 12.7 per cent as it sucked up votes from across the political spectrum.

However, as demonstrated in the local election, the party’s support has slumped. With its founding mission – leaving the European Union – now becoming a reality, it has lost dozens of council seats and a large proportion of its voters. Clearly, it has lost support almost as quickly as it gained it – but where is that support going? 

Where Ukip picked up support from – and has lost it to

In the last election Ukip was causing the Conservatives the biggest problems, picking up 28 per cent of its support from them, whilst only taking 14 per cent from the Liberal Democrats and 10 per cent from Labour.

However, as Paul Nuttall’s party has lost support over the past few months, the Tories are have not just taken back votes they originally lost to Ukip, they have also taken many more. Of Ukip’s 2015 vote, 37 per cent plan on voting Conservative this time out, with just 5 per cent voting Labour and 2 per cent Liberal Democrat. Just over a third (36 per cent) plan on sticking with Ukip.

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Ukip: A “gateway drug”?

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Some have speculated that the reason for this is that Ukip has acted like a “gateway drug” for voting Conservative – a halfway house for those leaving Labour or the Liberal Democrats, en route to the Tories. The theory is that there was a section of alienated voters who, for a variety of reasons, still didn’t feel they could vote for the Conservatives – so they voted Ukip instead. The thinking goes that having switched their vote once, they find it more comfortable moving over to the Tory column this time around.

YouGov’s panel means we can track peoples voting intention over many years, giving us the opportunity to test this theory. While over half (55 per cent) of the 2015 Ukip vote that came from the Conservatives has now gone back to where it came from, it is a different story for the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

In both cases, a large number have moved again – this time to the Tories. Of those that voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 and then moved to Ukip in 2015, one in three (34 per cent) have moved to the Conservatives while 28 per cent have returned to the Lib Dem fold. The situation is worse for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. Of those that voted Labour in 2010 and then Ukip in 2015, over a third (35 per cent) now say they will vote Conservative while just 9 per cent plan to return to the red column.

A bigger “gateway” in some areas

This suggests that for some, Ukip has acted as a “gateway drug” for Labour and Liberal Democrats to switch their support to the Conservatives. Although its overall influence is on quite a small scale, it could well have a more pronounced impact on the support for these parties in some parts of the country than others.

A good example is Labour in Wales. Here, a higher than average proportion of the party’s 2010 voters backed Ukip in 2015, and a significant number are now looking to back the Conservatives in next month’s general election. A similar thing could also affect the Liberal Democrats in the South West.

More are going straight to the hard stuff

While it may have matter more in certain pockets, it is important not to exaggerate the over scale of the “Ukip-as-a-gateway-drug” phenomena. For example, only a tiny fraction (around half a percent) have taken the path from Labour to Ukip to the Conservatives through the last seven years.

This is barely noticeable compared to the bigger switch taking place over that period – those moving straight from Labour to the Conservatives. Since 2010, approaching 4 per cent of the electorate have gone from red to blue. So although Ukip has acted as a “gateway drug” to the Conservatives for many Labour voters, Jeremy Corbyn’s team needs to be more worried about those that are moving straight to the hard stuff.

Chris Curtis is a political researcher at YouGov.