This article is from the February issue of Total Politics
If economics is, as Thomas Carlyle said, the “dismal science”, what on earth would he make of psephology? This sub-branch of a sub-branch of a sub-branch of the sort of thing one learns at a provincial university (formerly FE college) is pretty dreich at the best of times. And now is certainly not the best of times.
Life was easy for the poll-counters in the old days. Butler and McKenzie were able to push the cardboard device along a simple axis, and bingo, there you had a result. Peter Snow made it his own, and over the years it had grown a third dimension to deal with the phantom rise of the Lib Dems, as it has in Scotland and Wales. However, it looks like we need a new dimension.
The slow and steady rise of UKIP in the polls throws it all into flux. As Anthony Wells of YouGov pointed out at the end of 2011: “By far the biggest increase has gone to UKIP, who have gone from around two per cent last July to around five or six per cent.” At a number of times over the past month UKIP has been polling seven per cent, one or two behind the Lib Dems, and is now hitting eight per cent. And with the way in which the party’s USP, the EU, has been dominating the news – and not for any good reason – there’s no reason to think that this steady rise has in any way peaked. Only in November a Harris poll put the desire to leave the EU at 45 per cent against 24 per cent who would vote to stay in.
How do you slice eight per cent out of the middle when you have no real idea where it’s coming from? It has been simple and lazy shorthand that UKIP picks up its votes from two main sections of society: disillusioned Tories, and those who wish ‘a plague on all their houses’. But, as No 10 polling guru Andrew Cooper and others will tell you when they wake sweating from their nightmares, that’s fine. So why did UKIP win Hartlepool, Hull and Plymouth in the last European election? How is it that its numbers are up most strongly in the north west, never a Tory heartland?
The simple fact is that when one looks at recent elections from Barnsley (where UKIP, remember, came second to Labour) to the recent Hazlemere and Meopham council by-elections in Buckinghamshire and Kent, where it picked up 33 per cent in a Tory ward, none of it makes sense. Or rather it doesn’t make sense if you’re dealing with a simple two or even three-party hypothesis, most particularly when you’re wedded to the old UKIP/provisional Conservative meme.
UKIP rarely figures on the formal swings mentioned in by-election reports. It will jump from 10 to 20 per cent in a ward, and the local papers and elsewhere will report a two per cent swing from Tory to Labour, or a three per cent swing from Lib Dems to… anybody. The rise and rise of the awkward underdogs is going almost unreported because, to the psephologists, it just does not – cannot – compute.
Slowly, some are beginning to notice. It started with Patrick O’Flynn in the Daily Express, who has been predicting and reporting now for a while that UKIP is on the up. Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph used a devastating op-ed to point out: “By running a candidate in a marginal seat, UKIP can deprive the Tories of a few thousand votes, more than enough to cause him or her to lose – indeed, one Tory, David Heathcoat-Amory… blames UKIP for his loss in the 2010 election.” Of course, he couldn’t blame his own exposure to the manure of the expenses scandal as a reason for his loss, but the point is well made.
Most astonishing in this respect was Sarah Sands, the deputy editor of the Evening Standard, who said in November that, despite the lack of subtlety in UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage, it and he had been proven right in much of what they had been saying over the years, and given the choice she would back him, and thus the party.
At the last election, alongside Heathcoat-Amory, it has been suggested that UKIP cost the Tories 21 seats. This idea comes from those who cannot imagine that UKIP is picking up votes from elsewhere, because any analysis of its vote proves complacent. But today things are very different.
There are 117 seats of all parties whose majorities are less than six per cent. Given that the leadership of all three parties concentrates on ensuring that an increasingly fractious public must not have its say on membership of the EU and the drip, drip of defections, from the ordinary member to local councillors to think-tankers and former cabinet ministers, UKIP does not look like it’s going to go away fast. At first a trickle, and now a stream and probably a flood of figures is beginning to wake up and think the unthinkable – how many seats, then, are under threat from UKIP’s politically variegated support?
Put it this way: if, as many are suggesting, UKIP, rather than coming second in the next Euro poll – as it did in the last, at 16 per cent – tops it, what price 10 per cent, or even 15 per cent in a Westminster election the following year?
And if that happens, whose job is really safe? The swingometer will really fly off its moorings. Some shiny bottoms on the green benches will be getting decidedly squeaky. And, yes, we are looking at you, Guto Bebb in Aberconwy and you, Martin Horwood in Cheltenham, and dozens of others of all parties. UKIP will take no prisoners, for it believes that though there are individual MPs who try to represent their constituents, in the end they are representing parties who, when they have to make a decision, decide to protect themselves and ignore the public.
UKIP isn’t there to make compromises over the country’s future. It’s there because it believes that the best people to govern this country are the people of this country.
Gawain Towler is the EFD Group/UKIP head of press