Ukip, the 2015 General Election and Britain's EU Referendum

2015 was not the breakthrough election for Ukip and Nigel Farage that some predicted. But the party emerged as the third largest in Britain and the political agenda remains favourable for its populist message, writes Matthew Goodwin

The outcome of the 2015 General Election was a disappointment for the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). After winning the European Parliament elections in 2014, watching its support climb to over 15 per cent in the national polls, and then defeating the two main parties at two parliamentary by-elections in Clacton and Rochester and Strood, Nigel Farage and his radical right party had planned to capture dozens of seats in Westminster. But in the end, and in the face of Britain's first-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system, their revolt was stalled.

Ukip did mobilise nearly four million votes or 12.6 per cent of the vote, compared to 3.1 per cent in 2010, replacing the Liberal Democrats as the third most popular party and delivering the most impressive general election performance by an independent new party since the rise of Labour. But in the aftermath of the electoral battle it was still left with only one seat. ‘It was’, observed Sir David Butler, ‘the harshest treatment that our capricious electoral system has ever inflicted on a nationwide party’. The only Ukip candidate who was successful was the former Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, who secured re-election in the seaside and blue-collar seat of Clacton, although compared to the by-election only seven months previously, his majority was slashed by 9000 votes. In the hours that followed, Nigel Farage handed in a short-lived resignation and Ukip was engulfed by civil war.

Given these events it might be tempting to dismiss Ukip's campaign and result as merely the latest example of a challenger that failed to overcome Britain's electoral system. But there are good reasons to put this performance under a microscope, as we do in a new book with Oxford University Press, Ukip: Inside the Campaign to Redraw British Politics (co-authored with Caitlin Milazzo). Between the spring of 2014 and the summer months of 2015, we spent a considerable amount of time interviewing campaign insiders from all of the main parties, as well analysing quantitative data on British voters – their backgrounds, beliefs and political loyalties. This article will focus mainly on one aspect of that project, the results of the campaign, before exploring the implications of Ukip for the forthcoming referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union (EU).

Electoral Effort

In general, four observations can be made about Ukip's electoral performance. First, the party's strongest results arrived in those seats where it had focused a great deal of effort. In 2014, Farage and his team had decided to pursue a targeted strategy, focused on around 30 seats. There were a number of internal constraints that undermined this campaign but in broad terms Ukip did achieve its strongest results in its target seats, most of which were in the eastern half of England and often filled with older, white, working-class and less well educated voters, for example the target seats of Clacton (44%), Boston and Skegness (34%), South Thanet (32%), Heywood and Middleton (32%), Thurrock (32%) and Castle Point (32%). Historians will note that some of the seats where Ukip polled strongest, notably in Essex and Kent, in earlier centuries hosted some of the most prominent working-class revolts against London elites, such as the Peasants' Revolt and Jack Cade's rebellion.

However, Ukip also attracted above average support in seats where it did not invest heavily on the ground, for example receiving over 25 per cent in seats like Rother Valley, Mansfield and West Bromwich West (a seat that has a long history of radical right support), as well as other northern, Labour-held seats, a point we will return to. But, overall, the party's strongest results did arrive in its top target seats, where it averaged 30 per cent of the vote compared to an average of 14 per cent across all seats.


Ukip Growth

Second, while the party proved unable to overcome first-past-the-post, the election did see Ukip experience significant electoral growth. Nine out of ten of the party's candidates retained their deposits by polling at least five per cent of the vote, compared to only one in five in 2010. Since 2010, in 19 seats Ukip's vote increased by at least 20 points and in three it surged by more than 30. In 120 seats, such growth enabled Ukip to emerge as the second or main opposition party. Seventy-six of these seats where the party finished in second place had Conservative MPs, all of which were in southern England, while 44 were in Labour hands. Most of these seats where Ukip is now the second party, such as Oldham West and Royton, were ‘safe’ seats for the main parties, suggesting that people were more willing to endorse the insurgent in seats that were not competitive and where it had a slim chance of actual victory. There is also clear evidence that, in a significant number of them, Ukip directly benefited from the collapse of public support for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, Britain's traditional third party and one that has always attracted a significant number of political protestors. In 86 seats where Ukip is now entrenched as the second force, it replaced the Liberal Democrats as the challenger. Looking ahead, much clearly depends upon Tim Farron's ability to reassert his party's image as an alternative home for voters who are dissatisfied with ‘none of the above’ – although it will be a long climb back for the Liberal Democrats, who are now only among the top three places in 107 seats (compared to 602 in 2010).

These second place finishes were not all good news for Ukip, however. While the General Election saw the party begin to reshuffle the opposition in a large number of seats, it often still lags well behind the first-placed party, on average by 30 points. This was true, for example, in some of the northern Labour seats where Ukip often polled strongly despite little investment on the ground. In Ed Miliband's seat of Doncaster North, Ukip finished second but was 30 points behind the then-Labour Party leader. Similarly, in southern Conservative seats such as Castle Point, in Essex, Ukip finished second but is still 20 points behind the incumbent Conservative MP. Whether or not the party is able to sustain its electoral presence remains to be seen, but even if there were a general election tomorrow it would be difficult for Ukip to close the gap, even if it finds itself in a more competitive position. That said, the party's campaigners readily associate their strategy with that which was pursued by Chris Rennard and the Liberal Democrats in the early 1990s.


Ukip Voters

Third, Ukip's performance is also significant because it entrenched the relationship between the party and Britain's economically left behind, working-class voters. Consistent with its results at the 2014 European Parliament elections, and local elections, the party saw its strongest results along England's more financially disadvantaged east coast, in Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and also in the north east where its average share of the vote (17%) was its highest across the country. In many of these areas the party recruited the bulk of its support from financially vulnerable, disaffected, working-class and, to a lesser extent, self-employed voters who tended to be older, white and with few, if any, qualifications. Ukip voters were also among the most likely to say that they did not feel the economic recovery, which partly explains why many remained resistant to the Conservative Party's narrative of economic competence. Foremost, however, they were driven to Ukip by their intense concerns over immigration, national identity and how this rapid social change is changing Britain. Almost nine in ten voters who said that they had voted for Farage felt that controlling immigration was among the most pressing issues for the country. Our more detailed multivariate analysis of Ukip's support between 2014 and 2015, which is presented in the book, confirms this picture.

It is also worth noting that Ukip also performed more strongly in areas of Britain where, in earlier years, the far right had won above average support. For example, in areas where the British National Party (BNP) had polled above average in 2010, Ukip averaged 19 per cent of the vote in 2015, compared to an average of only 13 per cent in areas where the far right had been weaker. This is largely explained by the fact that both parties have drawn votes from the same left behind social groups, although the geographical distribution is slightly different (whereas the far right focused more strongly on Pennine Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and outer-east London, the radical right Ukip has been more successful and focused more of its efforts on England's east coast and, historically, the south west).


Hindering Labour

Fourth, the election also provided further evidence of Ukip's role in hindering public support for the Labour Party, a point that we made inRevolt on the Right, but which many on the centre-left of British politics remained reluctant to accept. Analyses of Ukip's results at local elections, for example by Stephen Fisher, had also pointed to the way in which support for the radical right party was effectively depriving the Labour Party of support that might otherwise have allowed the party to mount a more impressive comeback, although whether these voters would ever have warmed to Ed Miliband and Labour's modern programme is debatable.

At the 2015 general election, in seats where Ukip polled above average, Labour's vote grew by only two points but in seats where Ukip under-performed, Labour gained by an average of five points. Labour was thus progressing by an additional average of three points in areas where Ukip had lower support. The equivalent differences for the Conservative Party were far more modest. Cameron and his party grew by around two points in seats where their radical right rival was weak and one point where Ukip was strong. Only in the north were the Conservatives stalled by Ukip, and to a greater extent than Labour. In every other region (excluding Scotland) it was Labour that suffered weaker growth where the radical right delivered a stronger result. Looking ahead, this clearly poses a challenge to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which will likely face a strong Ukip challenge at 2016 elections in Wales and across northern local authorities.

At the 2015 General Election, therefore, and while failing to increase its presence in the House of Commons, Ukip did retain and mobilise its core support among a specific section of the electorate. Contrary to many early predictions that the party's support would melt away like spring snow, it remained fairly constant throughout the campaign and on the day of the vote itself. Yet like many challengers in the past the party ultimately failed to translate this support into elected representation on the green benches, and following a General Election campaign that was undermined by numerous internal problems.

Ukip's Future

What does the future hold for Nigel Farage and his party? Given the profile and attitudes of Ukip voters, it appears likely that Ukip's continued prominence in British politics rests not only on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum on Britain's EU membership but also the salience of immigration, which since the general election has risen to record levels. According to Ipsos-MORI, for example, in September 2015 the percentage of voters who rated immigration as one of the top issues had reached 56 per cent, putting it a striking 30 points ahead of the economy.

At the time of writing, in the autumn of 2015, the broader issue agenda of British politics remains favourable for Ukip, or a similar movement, that is campaigning to mobilise identity-related anxieties into politics. Indeed, since the eruption of the refugee crisis similar parties in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Sweden have recorded significant gains, either at elections or in the national polls. Amid the refugee crisis and lingering economic anxieties among Britain's left behind, there is similarly likely to remain a receptive constituency of voters, typically of between 10 and 15 per cent of the population, who strongly support Ukip's two-fold message of opposition to the EU and immigration. This is likely to fuel support for the ‘Leave’ camp at the referendum, although it may not be enough to carry the Eurosceptics over the line. In almost every opinion poll since the 2015 General Election, which should be treated with caution, the ‘Remain’ vote has been ahead of those who back ‘Leave’, although they also suggest that the race has started to tighten. Of course, whether or not Farage and his party can survive over the longer-term to entrench this support and extract broader benefits from the referendum is another matter altogether!