Bob's timely election coverage 1: On UKIP
The May 2014 UKIP earthquake was a relatively minor tremor
An ocean of unnecessary ink has been spilled by pundits analysing the alleged earthquake, so I won’t say much more about this. Some of the key points are as follows. UKIP’s opinion polling position was not affected by any revelations about the swivel-eyed lunacy of several of their candidates (which is depressing), but their vote did not add up to their polling position (which is encouraging). Because it was a protest vote, UKIP cannily avoided scrutiny of their policies outside their core obsessions. And we know it was a protest vote from the amount of vote-splitting: clearly people who voted UKIP in the Euros voted for more sensible parties to actually run their councils; when it comes to voting for the national government, many people will take their choice even more seriously and keep away from UKIP.
The more time the media gaze focuses on UKIP, the more clear it will become that, apart from two or three articulate figureheads, they utterly lack in the human material to translate a Euro election protest vote into an electable party: as the 2015 elections approach, they will have to put together some kind of manifesto covering issues other than the EU and immigration and they will struggle to do it convincingly. Despite UKIP propaganda, voters know that it is MPs not MEPs who actually make UK law (including on our relationship to the EU and control of our borders): while the majority of voters want immigration drastically reduced, very few actually want UKIP’s other core goal, EU exit.
London is neither as exceptional nor as homogenous as the media tells us
[In light of the storm in a teacup about Islington's Emily Thornberry and her white van tweet, this section seems to even more relevant, but my fear is that the media orchestration of the "Islington" narrative will serve to deepen the London/non-London divide in British politics.]
However, for the narrative to be sustained several facts get in the way. First, Britain’s other large cities, most strikingly Manchester, rejected UKIP in the same way as London, but so did Scotland and Wales, as well as the borders and rural central England. Second, the whiter suburban fringes of London saw signs of the UKIP tremor in the same way as the adjacent regions (thus, in Lewisham, the whitest and most suburban wards in the southeast saw fairly high second place votes for UKIP in the local elections), showing the London/non-London border is a bit blurrier than the narrative suggests.
The Tories are the main losers from UKIP, and the “left behind” narrative is flawed
However, the publication of Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right, a detailed analysis of the UKIP voting base totally changed the terms of the debate, once the chattering classes had absorbed its message, shaking Labour out of its complacency and, by election night, becoming the mainstream opinion of the punditariat.
Ford and Goodwin carefully and convincingly showed that the core UKIP voting base was a demographic they called the “left behind”, less educated, older, white working class men in post-industrial areas. Because this demographic has traditionally been part of the Labour core vote, they argued, the left behind’s defection to UKIP would harm Labour as well as – perhaps more than – the Tories.
The election results have partly borne out the Ford/Goodwin analysis. The East of England, the left behind heartland Ford and Goodwin spot-lit, indeed saw a strong UKIP performance. UKIP took seats in the industrial North as well as the blue rinse South.
However, historian Matt Cooper’s analysis of Ford and Goodwin’s data yields some interesting material. First, it is age rather than class which is the defining feature of the UKIP vote base: UKIP voters are ever so slightly more likely than the average voter to be working class, but much, much more likely than the average voter to be old.
More importantly, the Ford/Goodwin assumption that the working class UKIP supporters are turning from Labour ignores the significant right-wing current in the working class. Owen Jones’ recent New Statesman review of Selina Todd’s Rise and Fall of the British Working Class rightly points out that historians and social scientists have completely neglected the phenomenon of working class Tories. As with the Reagan Democrats who briefly returned to vote for Clinton, many working class Tories voted for Tony Blair in 1997. But the authoritarian populism of Powell and Thatcher has always had working class support.
Also read [added 24 November]: Lisa McKenzie: The left out and their flags; Phil BC: Who is White Van Dan?; Miljenko W: The sleazy disuniting nation of #UKIPingdom; Dave Osler: UKIP can't be all things to all people; James Bloodworth: What the left should take from Rochester and Strood; Eric Kaufman: Don't jump to conclusions that Rochester is a bellweather for 2015;
Next: All politics is local