On Labour’s tail

Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Articles, Progress | 0 comments

On Labour’s tail

This post originally appeared on Progress Online.

Labour had considerable cause for satisfaction in the result of the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election last month. There had been some jitters at the start of the campaign about the potential for the United Kingdom Independence party to do well in this strongly Labour, mostly white working-class constituency, but in the end it was a solid Labour hold. Ukip fell short of the psychologically important 20 per cent mark, which they had cleared in comparable by-elections in Rotherham and South Shields and needed to maintain momentum. As north-west member of parliament Jonathan Reynolds observed, it was the first time Ukip had gone into an election with something to lose – and it lost it.

Although Wythenshawe is a setback for the party’s grander hopes, 18 per cent of the vote was still enough for second place and is a performance that would have been regarded as extraordinary until fairly recently. The potential for Ukip to emerge as the second party of the urban north is still apparent, as the Liberal Democrats were humiliated and the Conservative vote slid badly.   Wythenshawe therefore confirmed the trend of recent local authority by-elections in metropolitan areas. Council by-elections are not prime-grade material for electoral analysis: the turnouts are low and the results sometimes affected by local and personal factors. But if there is a consistent series in which similar things happen, there will be some interesting nuggets to extract from the ore.

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The chart opposite shows what has happened in the seats Labour has defended in by-elections in the metropolitan boroughs since the Ukip surge in the May 2013 local elections in the shire counties. The picture is extremely clear. The Conservative vote has declined steadily since its peak in 2008, while the Liberal Democrat vote fell sharply in 2011 and has not recovered. Labour’s vote rose steadily until 2012, but has dropped significantly in recent by-elections (although the swing to Labour since 2010 is still large). Ukip has surged from next to nothing to take a strong second place, with 21.2 per cent in the seats it fought. The coalition parties have nearly ceased to exist in this strongly Labour slice of urban England and have been replaced as the main anti-Labour party  by Ukip; had it not been for the singular success of persistent Conservative candidate Gary Sambrook, who gained Kingstanding ward in Birmingham on the same day as Wythenshaw voted, the trend would look even worse for the Tories.

Ukip’s performance in the by-elections since May 2013 is much better than in the year from May 2012 to May 2013, although that year did show the party picking up a bit. Of the 16 seats Labour was defending in metropolitan boroughs in 2012-13, Ukip fought eight of them and polled a median vote share of 11.6 per cent. Since May 2013, Ukip has fought 22 seats out of 24 and its median vote share has been 18.8 per cent.

There is little sign, though, that Ukip has enough support to win seats from Labour on a serious basis. The only win it has managed was in Rawmarsh in Rotherham in June 2013 at the peak of its popularity and in a constituency where the party had done well in a parliamentary by-election.

2013-14 results are in the Labour-held metropolitan borough seats where there has been a by-election since May 2013. Data source for most by-election results www.englishelections.org.uk, otherwise council websites and the annual Local Elections Handbook from Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

The story is rather similar in parliamentary by-elections, with increases in nearly every Labour-held seat and a couple of dramatic jumps in 2012 and 2013.

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One extremely obvious fact about the Ukip vote in Labour seats is that it is strongest in white working-class England. The party has made little impact in Scotland or in Labour areas where there are large BAME populations or a large liberal student and professional vote. Few of this sort of area had elections in May 2013, but in those that did (Exeter, Lancaster, Preston, Norwich South) Ukip either achieved a low share of the vote or did not bother standing. In the metropolitan by-elections since 2013 the only wards in which Ukip polled worse than 10 per cent were in the core big cities – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. This contrasts with the reliable 20 per cent (and more) shares in Wigan and Barnsley. The result in the Wythenshawe parliamentary by-election (82 per cent white British, 18 per cent Ukip vote) falls neatly on the trend line.

Ukip can usually manage to win over 20 per cent of the vote in white working-class areas, which is enough for a clear second place but puts it a long way short of Labour. To take an example, Ukip won 25 per cent of the vote in Bolsover in the county council elections in 2013 and came second in every ward, but the closest it came to victory was a 27-point gap between it and the Labour candidate. In working-class areas where Ukip has been active for some time, its vote appears to have levelled off in the high 20s, as in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The combining of the European and local elections in May could see Ukip edging above this in its most promising working-class areas, but probably not winning many seats from Labour.

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Ukip is therefore not a threat to the Labour heartlands in the sense of costing the party parliamentary seats, but if it could establish itself as the second party in white working-class England the consequences would be considerable. It would accelerate the party’s transition away from its rather blimpish rightwing roots and the policies it espoused in its  2010 general election manifesto, now dismissed as ‘drivel’ by Nigel Farage. It could become more of a catch-all protest party, and perhaps even in time  be able to compete with Labour from the left on some issues if working-class earnings continue to stagnate.

Where Ukip does threaten Labour, however, is in the marginal constituencies where Labour and the Conservatives compete for white working-class votes, particularly in the coastal and new towns of the east of England. In some of them, where either Ukip is exceptionally strong or there is a close contest between the Conservatives and Labour, Ukip topped the poll in 2013. In others, such as Ipswich, the Ukip surge of 2013 seemed to reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives.

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Smaller parties tend to have difficulty sustaining high percentage shares of the vote in general elections. Their supporters are often more committed to voting in midterm elections than those of the main parties (the European parliamentary elections particularly for Ukip), and voters tend to drift back to the main parties when there is a choice of government to be made. But Labour cannot simply assume that the Labour-to-Ukip defectors will return home while the Conservative-to-Ukip defectors will stay put. There has been a tendency for Labour to rejoice in the discomfort Ukip is causing the Tories, but the party cannot afford to neglect its own vulnerabilities. The attraction of Ukip is not really its anti-European Union analysis of everything, but its ability to posture as being against the establishment at a time in which most people perceive the elites as out of touch, if not downright hostile, to their interests. Labour needs to convince those tempted to vote Ukip that it, rather than the chaotic anti-European party, really is ‘on your side’.

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