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How firm is UKIP’s support? (again)

There’s no denying it: UKIP’s rise in the past three years has been remarkable. In the 2010 general election, UKIP scored a measly 3 per cent of the vote. Now it commands media attention, drives the political debate, has bagged two MPs as well as a plethora of councillors and MEPs, and regularly scores upwards of 15 per cent in opinion polls. This is no mean achievement. Yet with the 2015 election now around the corner, many commentators have injected a heavy dose of cynicism into the debate. The question they typically ask is: will UKIP really maintain this momentum, or will its support melt away as voters turn back to the mainstream? As the election draws closer, is UKIP’s support cresting?

There is a precedent for small parties underperforming in Britain: the SDP rose to extraordinary heights in by-elections and polls in the early 1980s only to underwhelm at the general election when faced with the brutal reality of the British first-past-the-post system. Could the same happen to UKIP in May? The question is an important one, because it helps to define the mainstream parties’ strategies ahead of the election. If UKIP is likely to fall short, then it is essential to focus on how to win over people who currently say they are voting for the party; but if UKIP’s vote is firm, then it is perhaps not worth pursuing.

In an article a few months ago for the Times Red Box, the political scientist Matthew Goodwin argues that the comparison with the SDP is problematic. He highlights two things that stopped the SDP from realising their electoral ambitions: a diffuse voter base and weak party attachment. UKIP, on the other hand, has a sharply defined voter base – older, working class, concerned about immigration – that strongly identifies with the party. This, he argues, puts UKIP in a relatively strong position.

Goodwin’s comparison is highly instructive and indicates the significant differences between UKIP and the SDP. But I would argue that there is more to the story. First, UKIP’s concentrated voter base is a weakness as well as a strength – the party’s appeal appears to be inherently limited to a specific group of voters. Beyond these voters, UKIP struggles. This is borne out by polls suggesting that UKIP is now the most disliked of all the main parties.

Second, and more importantly, the point about voter attachment is complex. Goodwin’s analysis, using the post-Euro elections wave of the British Election Study, compares the degree to which different party identifiers say that they strongly identify with the party. I’ve tried to recreate the results used from the data and have put them in the chart below.

BES UKIP Chart 1

Source: British Election Study 2015 (Wave 2 v1.0), N=18545 (UKIP row = 1745)

(To illustrate what being a party identifier means for these purposes– if you ‘identify’ with Labour, then this either means that you think of yourself as Labour or, when prodded, that you ‘think of yourself as a little closer to’ Labour than the other parties. And likewise for any other party.)

But this analysis only looks at people who say they identify with a party. The above chart doesn’t take into account, for instance, people who say they would vote for UKIP but don’t identify with it. When we look at voter intention at the general election and compare that to which party respondents strongly identify with (if any), we get a very different picture:

BES UKIP Chart 2

Source: British Election Study 2015 (Wave 2 v1.0), N=20359 (UKIP row = 2908)

According to this chart, only 41 per cent of people who intend to vote UKIP strongly identify with the party. By contrast, 68 per cent of Conservatives voters strongly identify with the Conservatives; 71 per cent of Labour voters strongly identify with Labour; and 56 per cent of Lib Dem voters strongly identify with the Lib Dems. UKIP supporters therefore appear less committed than supporters of the three main parties. Indeed, a notably high 15 per cent of UKIP voters say they strongly identify with the Conservatives. The results are clearer in the following graph:

BES graph

Source: British Election Study 2015 (Wave 2 v1.0)

Among UKIP’s core supporters (i.e. its identifiers), then, there are roughly the same proportion of highly committed people as compared to the other parties. But among people saying they would vote UKIP, there is a large chunk of ‘reluctant’ supporters who don’t identify with the party. This suggests that there is hope for the mainstream parties. Many people who say they intend to vote UKIP in May can still be won round.

This is not to say UKIP is heading for a poor result next year. Counterpoint’s work on populism in Europe has led me to become suspicious of early announcements of populist failure. Across Europe, the populist right has been given premature death rites countless times over, only to show remarkable resilience. The Front National has been going in France for more than forty years – and is stronger than ever. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders was written off after bringing about the collapse of the centre right coalition government in 2012, but recent elections have shown that his party still has the support of roughly 10-15 per cent of the electorate. Support for the Austrian Freedom Party collapsed after a brief spell in government in the early 2000s but has rebounded since under Heinz-Christian Strache.

So UKIP is likely to continue to be a significant political force – and any attempt to write it off now would  be naïve. But this analysis indicates its electorate is not as solid as it would like. Ahead of May’s elections, there is still everything to play for.

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