Marginal Seats: UKIP and Labour

The strategy of the Conservative Party in the 2015 general election campaign consisted in targeting, with great precision, marginal seats which would decide the outcome. Guided by the Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives played ‘wedge politics’, or finding an issue which could be used ‘to split off an opponent’s traditional supporters’ (Becket 2015, The Guardian). One such wedge was the ‘surge of Scottish nationalism’ and gradually the message—that a Labour government would mean a coalition with the SNP, of ‘left and more left’—began to take hold. This and other issues—in particular Labour’s economic competence, and immigration—were used to target marginal seats (i.e. those held marginally by Labour or the Conservatives), and the strategy worked. In The Guardian, Helen Pidd (2015b) wrote of the marginal seats in the North and Midlands which ‘swung the wrong way for Labour’. Amongst such seats were Bolton West, Rossendale and Darwen, Blackpool North, Morecambe and Lunesdale, Pudsey, Carlisle, Corby Telford and Gower. Such a list is a striking confirmation of the conclusion reached by the Smith Institute—that Labour had failed in ‘small towns and suburbs’ (Hunter 2015: 16) and seaside towns. The Labour Party candidate for Bolton West told The Guardian that her campaign had suffered on Labour’s economic credibility and immigration, losing some of its own voters to UKIP.

The evidence to date suggests that both Labour and Conservative did lose votes to UKIP. However, where Labour lost votes to UKIP it did more harm to Labour than the comparable Conservative losses to UKIP An Ipsos Mori poll from May 2015 reported that of people who said they voted Labour in 2010, 6 % voted UKIP in 2015; amongst those who said they voted Conservative in 2010, 13 % reported voting UKIP in 2015. But overall the Conservatives held on to 82 % of their 2010 vote, and the damage from UKIP was contained (Ipsos Mori 2015). Thus, in the Midlands, the UKIP candidate (for Warwickshire North) concluded that the Tories had won in the Midlands because of UKIP:

‘The reason the Tories won the key battleground of the Midlands is that UKIP came to their rescue. We rode into the flanks of the white working class and captured them. I had Tory workers coming up and hugging me’ (cited in Anthony 2015).

A leading writer on UKIP and populism, Robert Ford, remarked that ‘UKIP surged in seats with large concentrations of poorer, white working class English nationalists’ (Ford 2015, The Guardian). Subsequently, a UKIP leader was quoted as saying that ‘in many constituencies we are the opposition, on behalf of working-class voters who have been neglected and taken for granted for decades. This is true of both northern England, where we are the opposition to Labour, and in southern England, where we are the opposition to the Conservatives’ (Quinn and Mason 2015, The Guardian).

But it was in Labour-Conservative marginals that UKIP did the most damage—to Labour. John Healey, a Labour MP, was clear that ‘UKIP hurt us (Labour) in Tory-Labour marginals by eating into our working class support’ (Healey 2015, The Guardian). His comments were not just a collection of observations from fellow Labour candidates who knew that UKIP inflicted losses on Labour; they were also a result of an account of Labour marginals: ‘We announced 106 target seats in 2013, the crucial majority of which were Conservative-held constituencies in England and Wales (85 seats)’ (Healey 2015, The Guardian). In the event, Labour won only 10 of these 85 seats and across these seats there was an average swing of 1.4 % to the Conservatives. Healey goes on: ‘A big part of the problem was UKIP In these 85 constituencies, UKIP was a minor player in 2010, polling fewer than 125,000 votes in total. This time...UKIP won over half a million votes (in these seats)’. And crucially, he adds, ‘in two thirds of the target seats we failed to take, the UKIP vote was greater than the Tory majority’.

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