UKIP: Replacing the Lib Dems or taking on the Tories?

March 8, 2011

By Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker

BRITAIN/The UK Independence Party (UKIP) emerged from its Spring Conference in Scarborough with talk of replacing the Liberal Democrats as the third party in British politics. An ambitious aim perhaps, but UKIP’s second place finish in the Barnsley Central by-election indicated it is capable of taking votes from each of the three main political parties with its potent mix of anti-establishment, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration messages. University of Leicester research shows that UKIP is largely a party of the centre right and that, in the medium-term, it is well-placed to pick up votes from disgruntled supporters of David Cameron’s Conservatives.

Using the first academic survey of UKIP’s general election candidates alongside responses from over 2,000 UKIP general election voters, taken from a YouGov survey, our study shows that UKIP candidates mainly see their party as being on the centre right, as distinctive in terms of its ‘hard’ Euroscepticism, and as taking a tougher line on immigration than the main parties but not than the British National Party (BNP). This fits with UKIP’s attempts to position itself as distinctive from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, not only on Europe but also on the salient issue of immigration, while shunning the extremism of the BNP.

Many UKIP supporters do not see the BNP in a positive light. At the 2009 elections 62 percent of UKIP supporters held a ‘fairly negative’ or ‘very negative’ view of the BNP. And when looking at UKIP’s 2010 voters’ views of other parties, the Conservatives were the most favoured. UKIP should resist the temptation to follow in the footsteps of the radical right as this would contaminate the UKIP brand by associating it with extremism, undermine its efforts to improve the party image, and repel those voters on the centre right who might be attracted to UKIP at a time when the Conservatives are not delivering what some of their supporters had hoped for.

Evidence from the 2009 European and 2010 general election suggests the party has more to gain from Conservative supporters than others. Roughly half of its voters at the 2009 European elections (in which UKIP finished second) went on to vote Conservative in 2010, indicating that some Tory supporters took up Nigel Farage’s invitation to ‘lend us your vote’. Information on tactical voting at the general election also suggests UKIP could gain from the Conservatives.

Of those who said they voted Conservative but either really preferred another party or had voted tactically, one-third said they preferred UKIP, the largest proportion for any party. In 2010, UKIP also won support from former Labour voters unhappy about the Labour government’s policies on immigration, Europe and crime. But only 7 percent of those who claimed to have voted tactically for Labour at the general election, and 5 percent of tactical Liberal Democrat supporters, said that UKIP was their preferred option.

The 2014 European elections will give Eurosceptic Conservatives the chance to express dissatisfaction with the Tories for ditching their manifesto commitment to repatriate policies from Brussels and any perceived failure to oppose EU economic governance and rulings by the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights. But the advent of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition also gives UKIP the opportunity, in domestic elections, to exploit popular concerns about immigration and crime, as it appears to have done successfully in Barnsley Central and in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, where UKIP finished fourth.

The party ran well-funded campaigns in both these cases, neither of them constituencies with a solid base which UKIP could build upon. In both elections, polling evidence indicates that, among those switching from the main parties, UKIP made gains primarily from Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters. As a party that attracts protest votes, UKIP is well-positioned to benefit from those who might have given such a vote to the Lib Dems in the past but who no longer want to since the party has been in government. Those who dislike the BNP but are unhappy with the three biggest parties may also see UKIP as worthy of their protest vote.

While replacing the Lib Dems under first-past-the-post is rather a tall order, in the shorter term gaining support in European and general elections from Eurosceptic Conservatives disappointed with the coalition looks much more feasible.

Philip Lynch is a senior lecturer in politics and Richard Whitaker is a lecturer in European politics at the University of Leicester. The opinions expressed are their own.

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