Tory activists considering voting Ukip in May - and may never come back

Political Editor

More than one in three Conservative Party members are seriously considering voting for the UK Independence Party in next month’s European elections, according to a new study.

These alienated Conservative activists are not only attracted by Ukip’s stance on Europe and immigration. They are also motivated by a dislike of David Cameron because they see him as “centrist” and “liberal” - with his social liberalism shown though his support for gay marriage.

The authors warn that for this group, voting Ukip in the Euro elections may not be a one-off protest, as the Conservatives hope, but a first step towards leaving the Tories and joining Nigel Farage’s party. This would boost Ukip’s prospects at next year’s general election, giving it more footsoldiers on the ground.

The research found that the grassroots Tories most tempted by Ukip lean a little more to the left than their fellow members on the economy and public services. But they are significantly more conservative “culturally and socially”.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, a co-author of the study, said: “Voting for Ukip could be the first step on a road that sees some Tory members eventually joining Nigel Farage’s party. That might provide Ukip with a stream of experienced activists who could boost its already effective insurgent campaign. If that happens, the next general election is going to be very difficult indeed for David Cameron.”

Prof Bale added: “Members may be more ideological than most voters, but if they don’t feel they’re getting what they want from leaders who they can’t identify with then – just like more and more voters these days – they prepared to take a punt on what they see as a more attractive alternative. This really challenges our assumptions about grassroots members in Britain and other countries. The common wisdom says that they’re a guaranteed source of votes for their party. But it looks like a combination of policy concerns and ideological differences with their leader can trump their institutional loyalty.”

 

The study, based on a YouGov survey of 850 Tory members, found that those most likely to vote Ukip are significantly to the left of those Tories least likely to switch but are also “significantly more socially authoritarian”. So it seems that their “cultural conservatism” rather than their politics draws them towards Ukip.

“They are particularly concerned about immigration and the EU. Perhaps most alarmingly for the [Conservative] party, they do not feel valued or respected by their own leadership, while they regard David Cameron - their own party leader and the country’s prime minister - as ideologically more remote from them than Ukip,” says the study, reported in the journal Political Studies.

Prof Bale and his co-author Paul Webb, professor of politics at Sussex University, said the Tory activists’ views may not necessarily be shared by the party’s supporters who are not members. On the other hand, if a significant number of Tory supporters do share them, that would be “cold comfort” because they would have “no institutional bonds of loyalty”.

They warned Mr Cameron it would be a mistake to match the offer from the “populist radical right” because the number of “culturally conservative” voters is likely to shrink over time. And Ukip could respond by simply “upping the ante”.

Conservative strategists hope to woo back potential Ukip voters by focusing on the improving economy, immigration and welfare in the Euro election campaign and underlining Mr Cameron’s pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Europe in 2017.

However, the antipathy towards Mr Cameron revealed in the study could make Tory waverers doubt his promise on Monday that he would not remain prime minister after the general election if he could not deliver a referendum.

Meanwhile, Ukip has begun expulsion procedures against two members after an internal investigation found that one had been a member of the BNP and the other had given money to the English Defence League, organisations incompatible with Ukip membership.

William Henwood, who was a Ukip candidate in Enfield in next month’s London borough elections, resigned from the party over his remarks suggesting that the comedian Lenny Henry should emigrate to a “black country.” A Ukip spokesman said: “Mr Henwood’s remarks about Lenny Henry caused enormous offence.”

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