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May 8th, 2014

UKIP is posing important challenges to the Conservatives, but as the Eurosceptic party continues to rise it faces its own dilemmas

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

May 8th, 2014

UKIP is posing important challenges to the Conservatives, but as the Eurosceptic party continues to rise it faces its own dilemmas

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

_CGB5158rcwsmallWhile the supporters of UKIP have been shown to come from across the political spectrum, the party has hitherto mainly posed a strategic challenge for the Conservative Party. Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker explore these challenges and wonder whether UKIP’s strategy of broadening its support, by going after working-class voters and formulating more policy proposals, may backfire. 

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is emerging as a significant force in British politics, polling above the Liberal Democrats in general election voting intentions and poised to win most votes in the 2014 European election. In their book Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin show that UKIP’s core electorate consists of old, white, working class men who have been ‘left behind’ by social and political change. This, they argue, raises as many problems for the Labour Party as it does for the Conservatives.

The caricature of UKIP as a party of disillusioned Eurosceptic Conservatives is erroneous. But when we examine UKIP’s impact on the party system and party competition, UKIP has (to date) posed the more difficult strategic challenges for the Conservative Party. UKIP’s challenge to the Conservatives is not just a reflection of short-term difficulties arising from problems in coalition that threaten the Tories’ prospects of winning the 2015 general election, but also longer-term problems concerning the decline of those factors that produced Conservative dominance in the 20th century. Then, the Conservatives were a national, patriotic party with a cross-class appeal, who pursued effective statecraft in office, and did not face major challenges from non-extremist parties located to their right. The rise of UKIP has furthered the erosion of these foundations of Conservative dominance. Here, we consider the challenges that the rise of UKIP poses for the Conservatives, before examining the strategic dilemmas that this growth poses for UKIP itself.

The Conservatives and the UKIP challenge 

The fractured Right. UKIP poses the most significant challenge to the Conservative Party’s dominance on the Right. It is positioned to the right of the Conservatives, claiming to be the authentic conservative voice on issues such as the EU, immigration, taxation, grammar schools and gay marriage. UKIP’s position lacks coherence, but has nonetheless exposed Conservative vulnerabilities. Historically, external challenges from the Right (e.g. Beaverbrook’s Empire Free Trade Crusade) have been short-lived and often absorbed by the Conservatives. The most significant challenge from the Right to the political orthodoxy – Thatcherism – came from outsiders within the Conservative Party who became the dominant faction. Now, the Conservative Right is producing some radical thinking but is fragmented, and UKIP is leading the insurgency.

Identity politics. The politics of nationhood had been an area of Conservative strength for much of the 20th century, but identity politics – issues such as European integration, immigration and England’s place in the UK – have proved particularly difficult for the party in recent years. UKIP’s focus on identity politics exacerbates these problems and makes it more difficult for the Conservatives to establish electoral advantage on these issues. UKIP has sought to frame the debate on the EU and immigration by linking them together, making it more difficult for the Conservatives to lower the salience of these issues and be perceived by voters to have delivered policy success. David Cameron’s pledge to negotiate a new settlement with the EU and hold an ‘in-out’ referendum is in tune with public opinion, but the chances of establishing issue ownership are lessened by UKIP’s hard Eurosceptic alternative and questioning of the credibility of Cameron’s soft Euroscepticism. Furthermore, aping UKIP’s position on the EU and immigration will not persuade UKIP voters who are thoroughly disillusioned with the main parties to switch back to them.

Failings of the Cameron project. The shortcomings of Cameron’s modernisation project have been brought into stark relief by the rise of UKIP. Cameron recognised that the Conservatives can only win from the centre ground, but he could not secure large enough swings from middle class, women, young and ethnic minority voters to deliver a parliamentary majority in 2010. These failings are exacerbated by the leakage of support to UKIP, driven by Conservative failings on valence issues (e.g. the 2012 budget ‘omnishambles’) and the attractiveness of UKIP’s tougher messages on the EU and immigration to disillusioned Conservatives. In short, Cameron has not reproduced the alchemy that saw Blair persuade supporters of his rival party to switch sides while retaining much of his core support.

Voter defection. The Conservatives have lost significantly more of their 2010 general election support to UKIP than have Labour or the Liberal Democrats as Figure 1 demonstrates drawing on YouGov polling. Data from the British Election Study’s Continuous Monitoring Survey (CMS) for the period June 2010 to April 2013 show that 42% of UKIP supporters recalled voting for the Conservatives in 2010. We would expect a populist party such as UKIP to win support from the governing party, but it has taken a higher proportion of voters from the Conservatives since 2012 than it managed to take from Labour under Blair or Brown. Up to 20% of Conservative 2010 voters now say that they will vote for UKIP at the next general election. Again, using the CMS data, among 2010 Conservative voters, those who disapprove of EU membership and those in working class occupations were more likely to defect to UKIP than other Conservatives. The likelihood of defection also rises among 2010 Conservative voters as age increases. This fits the broader pattern of UKIP support. However, UKIP draws support from across different social groups: according to CMS data for the period April 2012 to April 2013, 35% of UKIP supporters were from the professional/managerial middle class (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: Percentages of 2010 voters for the three main parties switching to UKIP

Whitaker and Lynch fig 1

Source: First YouGov poll in each month ( 

Figure 2: UKIP support by occupational group, 2004-2013

Whitaker and Lynch fig 2

Source: British Election Study, Continuous Monitoring Survey data aggregated into twelve month groups (13 months in the case of the data for 2012-13)

Working class conservatives. The rise of UKIP further diminishes the Conservatives’ cross-class, national appeal, casting it further adrift of Labour in much of northern England. The economic interests and social characteristics of working class UKIP voters may be similar to ‘Old Labour’ voters, but their political attitudes place them on the Right. Some are ex-Conservatives, others are the sort of blue collar voters who the Conservatives used to attract but who now appear beyond the reach of Cameron’s party. Thatcherism combined an economic appeal to aspirant working class votes with patriotic, social conservative values to win over the ‘Tebbit Tories’. If working class conservatives take a ‘Tebbit Test’– which side do you support, the Conservatives or UKIP? – many now choose UKIP, as epitomised by the party’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall. UKIP’s populist rhetoric depicting the Conservatives as part of a political elite that does not understand the concerns of ordinary people, also undermines Conservative attempts to attract support from blue collar workers.

Party unity. A toxic combination of factors re-opened Conservative divisions on European integration: the eurozone crisis, the dilution of Conservative policy in coalition, the growth in hard Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party, and the rise of UKIP. The latter fuelled Conservative divisions and intensified the pressure on Cameron to pledge renegotiation and a referendum. Some Conservatives have suggested a pact with UKIP, but this would create more problems than it solves. Beyond Westminster, Paul Webb and Tim Bale have shown that many Conservative Party members are willing to countenance voting for UKIP. Should the Conservatives lose the 2015 general election, the party’s post-mortem (and a possible leadership contest) may well be framed in terms of winning back voters lost to UKIP rather than broadening its appeal.

Strategic challenges for UKIP

Niche parties such as UKIP face strategic dilemmas when they seek to move to the political mainstream. Radical, distinctive messages are central to their identity and electoral appeal – any dilution of the message is likely to bring internal division and voter defection. Withdrawal from the EU has long been UKIP’s primary goal, but as its support has increased and winning seats at Westminster no longer seems quite so outlandish, policy-seeking objectives may be trumped by vote-seeking objectives. An election deal with the Conservatives may provide the best short-term prospect of an ‘in-out’ referendum and EU exit, but would be unpopular with many UKIP members and undermine its anti-establishment narrative and efforts to recruit Labour voters.

UKIP has broadened its narrative beyond the EU issue, but there is a clear disconnect between the views of many in the UKIP leadership who favour Thatcherite economic policies and are socially liberal, and UKIP’s socially conservative, working class supporters. Nigel Farage has disowned UKIP’s 2010 election manifesto, and the party’s 2014 local and European election manifestos have a sharper focus on ‘betrayed working people’ than previously. There is no mention of a flat tax (although UKIP proposes raising the threshold for the top rate of income tax to 45 pence in the pound) or voucher schemes in health and education. What is not yet clear is whether UKIP’s policy review will further dilute its low tax, small state outlook, and whether the party’s MEPs, activists and donors will tolerate a major positional shift.

UKIP’s new focus on recruiting working class support carries further risks. How credible will this be when former Conservatives continue to hold key positions in the party? More than 25% of UKIP candidates for the European elections have previously stood for the Conservatives in European, national or local elections. But predictions that Conservative MPs would defect to UKIP have proved wide of the mark. Former Conservative voters also make up a sizeable chunk of UKIP support: CMS data for the period June 2010 to April 2013 show that 42% of UKIP supporters had voted for the Conservatives in 2010. If, as UKIP’s Director of Communications Patrick O’Flynn suggests, UKIP has ‘probably maxed out the Tory vote’, then broadening the party’s appeal is a rational vote-maximising strategy. But can UKIP retain its current level of support from former Conservatives if it repositions itself as a party representing the working class? With the Conservative Party’s efforts to coax back its former voters bringing little reward, it would be ironic if UKIP’s own repositioning pushed some of them back into the Conservative fold.

This post is the second in a series of three that are derived from a panel on ‘UKIP, the European Parliament Elections and Beyond’, part of the Political Studies Association’s Annual Conference, Manchester April 2014.

Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Homepage image credit: Chatham House

About the Authors

_CGB5158Philip Lynch is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His current research focuses on the Conservative Party and European integration, party competition between the Conservatives and UKIP, and Euroscepticism in the UK. His work on UKIP has been published in Parliamentary Affairs, British Politics and the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
rcwsmallRichard Whitaker is a Lecturer in European Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His research interests include the European Parliament and British centre-right parties and European integration. He is the author of The European Parliament’s Committees (Routledge, 2011). 


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