Street by Street

by Andrew Stuttaford

The math is clear. A UKIP vote of around three percent cost the Conservative party an absolute majority at the last (2010) British general election.  The inroads UKIP has recently been making with former Labour voters complicates the picture somewhat, but  a UKIP vote of very much more than that what the party secured in 2010 will doom the Tories to defeat next year. Optimistic Conservatives point to the fact that UKIP grabbed 16.5 percent of the vote in the EU elections in 2009 only to see that shrink dramatically in the ‘proper’ election the next year. Yes, yes, it’s true that UKIP took 27.5 percent of the vote in this year’s election for the EU parliament, but won’t fear of an increasingly leftwing Labour party bring enough UKIP voters back to the Tory camp in 2015 to save the day?

The answer to that is no, thanks not least to the extraordinarily destructive way in which David Cameron is leading his party (the recent botched ministerial reshuffle is just the latest example), but there is something else at play: UKIP is evolving into something rather more than a Tory party in exile, or, for that matter, a collection of angry scrawls on the ballot paper, and that is likely to mean that a higher percentage of UKIP voters will stick with the party in 2015 than was the case in 2010.

Under the circumstances, this Daily Telegraph piece from earlier this week ought to be the stuff of Tory nightmares. Here’s a key extract:

The party has learned the hard way how first-past-the-post brutally punishes small, new parties with evenly spread support – second place is nothing in our electoral system. The parties’ leaders and key strategists have carefully studied the Liberal Democrats’ successful insurgencies in the 1990s: building strongholds of support at local elections, then using these as springboards for intensive and successful Westminster campaigns. Applying this model has already enabled them to win hundreds of local council seats, and they are now trying to convert this local strength into Westminster representation through intense campaigning.

Lord Ashcroft’s poll provides evidence that this is working. In Thurrock, a must-win ultra-marginal, 31 per cent of voters report having been contacted by Ukip – meaning the supposedly disorganised insurgents are beating both Labour (25 per cent) and the incumbent Conservatives (26 [er cent) in the vital constituency street fight. The story is the same in Thanet South – 18 per cent of voters have already been contacted by Ukip, compared to 11 per cent by Labour and 10 per cent by the Conservatives, while in Great Yarmouth, Ukip are tied with the Conservatives on 16 per cent and ahead of Labour on 14 per cent. The Liberal Democrats have long known that the unglamorous grunt work of door knocks and leaflets is the key to electoral success – now Ukip are applying the same lesson, and with the same results.

The evidence that Ukip are learning how to win at street fighting gives the main parties two big reasons to worry. First, it is clear from the Ashcroft polling that, where they fight hard, Ukip can hurt either party’s local prospects. In both Thurrock and Great Yarmouth, Ukip’s local momentum is hurting Labour – who are underperforming in both seats and could lose two otherwise strong pickup opportunities to Farage’s party. In Thanet South, though, it is the Conservatives who are suffering – a seat which in normal circumstances would be out of reach could fall to Ukip or even to Labour. Secondly, arguments like “vote Nigel, get Ed” or “Vote Nigel, get Dave” simply won’t work in seats where Ukip are ahead or in the fight. Voters presented with this argument on the doorstep will simply reply: “No, I’ve seen the polling. Round here it is vote Nigel, get Nigel.”

Those in Westminster who still think of Ukip as a passing fad need to realise that the street fight has begun in Ukip’s target seats, and the rebels are winning.