The rise of the UK Independence Party poses the biggest threat to mainstream politics for a generation as it appeals to the 30 per cent of the electorate who feel “left behind” by the three main parties.
The conclusion of the first academic study of Nigel Farage's party, published on Friday, will make worrying reading for all three main parties - not least Labour. Although the right-wing Eurosceptic party has been seen as mainly a threat to the Conservatives, one of the most striking findings is that Ukip's support base is now “more working class than any of the main parties.”(see panel, below).
The book, Revolt on the Right, charts how Ukip, which started life as a pressure group campaigning for EU withdrawal, has broadened its appeal - not just by talking about immigration but exploiting an “intense dissatisfaction” with the political class. It describes Ukip as “the most successful grassroots political insurgency in modern British political history” and endorses Mr Farage's claim that his party is “a new political force and it is here to stay.”
Dr Matthew Goodwin, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Robert Ford, lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, studied the views of more than over 100,000 British voters, including 6,000 Ukip supporters, and interviewed key players in Ukip. They believe the “revolt” has been misunderstood by the media and political classes.
The authors say: “Ukip voters, who are by some margin the most politically dissatisfied group in the electorate, have lost faith in the ability of traditional politics to solve their everyday problems and have instead turned their anger towards groups they feel are responsible for the decline in their standards of living and loss of control over their lives.
“They do not consider mainstream politicians to be people who can protect them from the effects of the financial crisis, but rather as part of the corrupt and distant class who inflicted this crisis upon them. This presents a serious problem for Labour going forward, as groups of voters who should be naturally sympathetic to the economic policies of the left no longer trust politicians to help them.“
According to the academics, Ukip supporters are “dissatisfied with the Labour Party and Ed Miliband's leadership of it.” They say most of Ukip's support comes from the “left behind” social groups who were once solidly Labour. Ukip has driven a wedge between the “struggling blue collar Old Left and educated white collar New Left.”
They warn: “If it [Labour] allows Ukip to become established as part of the mainstream political conversation, either with MPs at Westminster or a strong presence in Labour heartlands, the centre left risks making that divide permanent.... If it [Labour] were to win the next election, it would find Ukip's barbs directed at it. A failure to combat Ukip before 2015 will result in a stronger populist opponent to future Labour governments.”
Dr Goodwin and Dr Ford found that about about 30 per cent of voters are both Eurosceptic and opposed to immigration, or Eurosceptic and politically dissatisfied, while around 20 per cent hold all three attitudes. This potential pool of support is about twice Ukip's opinion poll rating, so “there is still plenty of potential for further growth.”
The academics chart how deep social and economic changes since 1964 created room for Ukip's “insurgency” by leaving older, less skilled and less well educated working class voters. “Ukip saw these social divisions and found a way to articulate them, giving voters an outlet for concerns that had been festering for years,” they say.
This “left behind” group could once rely on their numerical strength to ensure a voice in the two biggest parties, but the growth of the highly-educated middle class led both Labour and the Tories to “regard winning support from middle class swing voters as more important.”
Since 2010, many voters have remained angry about Labour's poor performance in government, but after giving David Cameron's Conservatives a try, swiftly turned against his party as well. So the proportion of people dissatisfied with the biggest two parties is at all-time high, the book says. “There is a growing electorate who Ukip can woo on two counts -they agree with the rebels on the issues, and they share Nigel Farage's disdain for David Cameron.”
The authors warn: “They see a world and a way of life slipping away, feel powerless to stop it happening and are angry at the established political class for not seeming to understand their concern or care about what is being lost. These feelings are not likely to be resolved by a new party leader, a referendum promise or a net migration target. Ukip's revolt was a long time coming, and it may have a long way to run.”
They argue: “Ukip matters because it has achieved something unprecedented in modern British political history: it has taken a grassroots insurgency and grown it into a more professional political party with mass support.” Today, Ukip announced its membership has grown to a record 34,320.
However, the authors are unsure whether Ukip, with its support widely spread, will make a breakthrough at Westminster because of the first-past-the-post system. They calculate its best hopes of winning seats at next year's general election are in Great Grimsby, Plymouth Moor View, Ashfield, Walsall North, Waveney, Hartlepool, Bishop Auckland, Blackpool South, Stoke-on-Trent North, Great Yarmouth, Eastleigh, Rotherham, South Shields, Barnsley Central and Middlesbrough.
They conclude: “Ukip's future remains unclear, their capacity to win domestic elections remains unproven, but one thing is certain: the revolt on the right has already changed the face of British politics.”
Ukip's electoral base
Ukip is a “grey-haired, blue-collar revolt” and its electoral base is “old, male, working class, white and less educated,” say academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford.
“Contrary to those who argue that Ukip’s voters are middle class Tories, we actually find that its base is more working class than any of the main parties,” they say. Blue-collar Ukip voters outnumber their white-collar counterparts by 42 to 30 per cent. In contrast, 44 per cent of Conservative supporters are middle class; while for Labour, the middle classes have a narrow 36-35 per cent lead.
Some 57 per cent of Ukip supporters are over the age of 54, while just over one in 10 are under 35. Some 55 per cent left school at 16 or earlier, while only 24 per cent went to university.
However, Ukip suffers from “a persistent failure to appeal” to three key groups of voters – women (put off by the “chauvinistic and anti-feminist views” of Ukip members and politicians); young people (who find the party “almost comically out of touch” with their own worldview) and the ethnic minorities (because of its “strident and often emotive language about immigration.”)
'Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain' is published Friday by Routledge Books