The simple narrative on UKIP as a right-wing party does not capture its appeal across the political spectrum
UKIP has traditionally been seen as a right-wing political party and, as such, an electoral threat to the Conservative Party. In particular, UKIP’s anti-EU and anti-immigration stances represent policy positions which have historically appealed to the right of the Conservative party. However, evidence suggests UKIP are at least as successful in attracting previous Labour voters, and indeed in appealing to a wider section of the public more generally, than this simple narrative suggests.
Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have demonstrated that UKIP voters cannot simply be labelled as right-wing on a linear axis. Their research shows that an average of 71% of UKIP voters agree with five left-wing ideological statements, far above the score for Conservative voters (43%) and even ahead of the score for the Liberal Democrats (65%). The score for Labour was 81%. This appears to have been translated into recent electoral outcomes: for example, in the recent elections in Rotherham – an area traditionally dominated by Labour – UKIP won 10 out of the 21 wards and, in doing so, became the official opposition on the council.
In attracting a wide coalition of support, UKIP has successfully (re?)-branded itself as an anti-establishment party. This has enabled the party to maintain its traditional supporters – some of whom have undoubtedly caused embarrassment for Nigel Farage over the last 18 months – whilst incorporating the support of previous Labour voters. It appears to be tapping into the disillusionment that has developed among Labour supporters during its period in office, as well as anger among former Liberal Democrat supporters regarding the party’s involvement in the Coalition government. While it may not win many seats on May 7th, UKIP appears still to be on course to come second in 100+ seats behind all of the mainstream parties.
Further analysis by Ford and Goodwin suggests that, in 2005 and 2010, UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) were competing for very similar voters. It is likely that many former BNP voters will turn to UKIP at the 2015 election, following the BNP’s demise as a political force. ‘The Relationship between Deprivation and UKIP’s Electoral Support’ (my SPERI British Political Economy Brief, co-authored with Craig Berry), which will be published tomorrow, suggests that UKIP will pose much more of a challenge to Labour in 2015 than it did in 2010. As the table below shows, when the UKIP vote for 2010 is combined with the BNP vote, there is a clear correlation between the party’s votes and Labour-held seats. Among the 25 constituencies with the highest combined UKIP and BNP vote in 2010, Labour won all but 4. While the majority (60%) of the seats where UKIP performed best were won by the Conservatives, a sizeable number were won by Labour. Moreover, Labour won all but 2 of the 25 seats where the BNP performed best.
The Brief also shows that constituencies with the highest levels of deprivation are less likely to vote for mainstream political parties. Here, the incorporation of the Liberal Democrats in government through the Coalition could further aid UKIPs anti-establishment appeal, as voters disillusioned with traditional Westminster politics have a narrower range of parties to select from.
These points are not lost on UKIP. Farage has sought to widen UKIP’s appeal in defining the party as ‘crossing the class barrier’. During a recent appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he explicitly invoked the language of class, not something usually associated with politicians appealing solely to right-wing voters, in particular through his definition of Al Murray who is standing against him in the parliamentary seat of Thanet South as a ‘very middle class Oxbridge educated comedian’.
To sum up, then, UKIP has distanced itself from traditional linear conceptions of left and right, pushing instead its anti-establishment credentials. This has coincided with the demise of traditional far-right political parties, such as the BNP, and the incorporation into ‘the establishment’ of the Liberal Democrats, thereby offering UKIP a greater degree of political space from which to attract voters. David Cameron seems particularly vexed whenever he is asked about UKIP, but our analysis suggests that UKIP may (and certainly should) be giving Ed Miliband more sleepless nights than they are the Prime Minister.
About the author
Chris Kirkland is a PhD student in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.