Forget the Shires, UKIP have their sites on the towns and cities of Northern England
With the exception of Lincolnshire, UKIP have yet to make real headway in Tory areas, which would be odd if you believed that line that it’s nothing but a refuge for Thatcherites and 1950’s social conservatives. Granted, there hasn’t been a recent by-election in the Home Counties, but in this year’s Local Elections the Tories held up far better than many had thought they would. Labour came nowhere near to clawing back the numbers they lost in the bloodbath of 2009, and part of that was down to UKIP siphoning off votes that would probably have gone to Labour
True, UKIP will always hold some degree of magnetism for those on the Center Right who think Cameron and his modernisers have betrayed them. But the more interesting, and possibly more electorally significant story, is how UKIP have started to cross the frontier, away from the golf clubs and WI meetings, and into the Labour territories of pubs and factories.
But rather than this being an invasion, UKIP are simply occupying terrain that has unofficially long been left abandoned. Successive waves of Labour Party leaderships allowed themselves to get complacent about their core vote. The assumption was, with the Thatcher anomaly gone, the white working class vote would fall back into the Labour default it always had been. With this part of the electorate secure, New Labour could set about gearing its policies and its image towards attracting the more cosmopolitan, socially liberal voter who had previously been more inclined to vote Lib Dem.
And the policy worked. During the 90’s and early 2000’s traditional Labour voters stuck with the party partly through loyalty, partly through relief at being back in power, and partly because they simply had nowhere else to go. The mistake Labour made was to assume that this was always going to be the case. Yet between becoming PM and standing down, Tony Blair lost 3 million votes. However the warning wasn’t heeded because neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems seemed to be gaining at Labours expense.
Now, a string of parliamentary and local by-election results has set alarms bells ringing within the upper echelons of the Labour Party. Just as the Tories found out, Labour can no longer rely on their previously tried and tested demographics to guarantee them a slice of the vote.
An under explored facet of what attracts traditional Labour to UKIP is the socially conservative attitudes prevalent in traditional Labour communities, especially in the towns and cities of Northern England. As mentioned previously, these attitudes and values were willfully ignored by Labour leaderships intent on steering the party in a progressive, socially liberal, internationalist direction. But South Shields and Bolton are a world away from Primrose Hill and Islington. In Labour heartlands, you’ll find unabashed patriotism, deep reservations about immigration, hardened attitudes towards criminals, annoyance at benefits claimants seemingly with more disposable income than workers, ill will towards the EU, and exasperation over foreign aid. These are UKIP’s trump cards and the Tories and Labour are (tellingly) both moving to out do each other on who can be more hardline on some of these issues.
The very style and mannerism of UKIP chime well too. Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet would look toe-curlingly awkward trying to engage in pub banter with locals over a pint of bitter, a cheeky cigarette and the promise of the kebab later. But Farage, Nuttall, Bloom or Woolfe and can pull it off because that’s the real them. Even at the lower levels, the very fact that UKIPs local and youth teams are a little less polished and gaff prone all add to the appeal. What the Westminster bubble sees a bumbling and amateur, voters see as sincere and authentic.
Only viable alternative
In addition, for voters used to supporting Labour, UKIP offer the only real and palatable alternative. The Tories are never going to be an option. The BNP and TUSC are a bit too extreme, even as a protest vote. The Greens fail to resonate outside a very small community. The Lib Dems are partially tainted by being in bed with the Tories, and partially hindered by having no clear brand or message. UKIP are keenly aware of this, and although their orgaisational skill and resources are still lacking, they are making headway.
Maybe it’s something with the British mindset. We love things that are a bit rubbish and ramshackle. Look at B&B’s; no other country would put up with them, but we can’t get enough of the bloody things! We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and it’s no coincidence that the decline in engagement with politics has coincided with the age of the professional politician. And whatever your views in their policies, UKIP are shaking things up. The slick, opinion-phobic, ideologically lobotomised careerist clone is being challenged by a straight talking, horrendously off message, local lad who can reach voters in a way that the political class can’t.
Tribalism and a hatred of the other side kept many Tories and Labour voters loyal, despite the gulf between the leadership and the grassroots. But increasingly, just as UKIP became a viable alternative for the snarling Tory Right, they are also becoming a viable alternative for the white, working class among Labour’s supporters.