After Thursday’s UK by-elections, we have had a huge amount of ‘Oh God, what will it all mean, will politics ever be the same again’ speculation. As Labour nearly lost one of its safe seats, they as well as the Conservatives are trying hard not to panic. Some writers have optimistically coupled this result with the Scottish referendum turnout to suggest there is a new engagement in politics (but not of the conventional kind) and a search for ‘political identity’. Others have more pessimistically drawn parallels with the rise of fascism. (Are these two contradictory?)
If you see everything in terms of a left-right spectrum, then UKIP’s popularity seems to indicate a dramatic shift to the right. Here is the share of the popular vote gained in elections since 1945, but ending with an average of current polls.
If we place the LibDems as somewhere near the centre of this spectrum, then we have a fairly even balance between parties of the right and left - until now. So has there been a sharp movement to the right among the electorate? UKIP policies are clearly to the right of the Conservatives. But it may be a mistake to confuse the party and its policies with the views of those currently voting for them. Here is Owen Jones noting how UKIP voters tend to want to renationalise the railways and energy companies, increase the minimum wage substantially, and keep the NHS within the public sector.
Perhaps we should see UKIP as an anti-Europe party, something outside the left-right spectrum? Again the party is not the same as its supporters. Only a quarter of UKIP voters in this survey said resolving Britain’s future relations with the European Union is one of the three most important issues currently facing the country. Conservative MPs may be switching to UKIP because of Europe, but it is not clear that UKIP voters are.
Before leaving this chart, we should note that the rise in UKIP is not the only recent dramatic change. The other is the decline of the LibDem vote. In the by-election where Labour only just retained their seat, we actually saw Labour keep its 2010 share of the vote. The gain in UKIP’s share was accounted for by a roughly equal decline in the share of the Conservatives and LibDems. As many Conservatives will have been voting tactically, we once again see an apparent shift from LibDem to UKIP.
Now we know that around half of UKIP voters used to vote Conservative, not LibDem. We also know that a significant number of ex-LibDem voters (about a third?) have moved to Labour, as we might have expected as a result of forming a coalition with the Conservatives. But about 20% of UKIP voters who voted for another party in 2010 are ex-LibDem voters - that is about half a million voters. (The equivalent number for Labour is 15%) Anyone familiar with LibDem policies would be surprised the figure is this high: UKIP wants to leave Europe, but the LibDems have always been the most pro-Europe party. However this may be making the same mistake again: assuming that voters’ views map to party policies.
Here is an alternative idea that might be part (and only part) of the story. (It is far from original - see Adam Lent for example.) An important underlying trend since perhaps the 1960s is the rise of the disaffected voter. These are voters with no strong ideological affiliations, and with little interest or knowledge of politics. What they do feel strongly about, however, is that politicians in power do not represent their views or interests, and that ‘they are all as bad as each other’. What will attract these voters are politicians who are not part of the ‘Westminster elite’, because they are untainted by government. This is not a peculiar UK phenomenon - not being part ‘of Washington’ is a constant appeal in the US. This, rather than policies, may be the key factor for these voters.
The emergence of this group could explain some part of the rise in the LibDem vote since the 1970s. By joining the coalition after the 2010 election the LibDems not only lost their more left leaning supporters, they also lost the support of the disaffected voter, because they were now part of government. Very quickly their image changed from plucky outsiders to part of the Westminster establishment, and they could no longer be the party of the disaffected voter. But neither could Labour, who not only had been recently in government, but continued to behave as they did in government. The disaffected voter needed somewhere to go, and for some UKIP became their home.
Of course a large part of UKIP’s support is from disgruntled Conservatives. But if that was the complete story, UKIP’s rise would only be a problem for the Conservatives, and Labour would be quietly encouraging UKIP. This is clearly not the case. If this idea of the disaffected voter sounds similar to the old idea of the protest vote, that is partly true, but with an important difference. Protest votes are generally assumed to melt away come general elections, but this will not be true of the disaffected voter. For that reason, expecting UKIP to fade away may be naive.
By now you are probably screaming: what about immigration! I think immigration is the kind of the issue that the disaffected voter would focus on. But this post is already too long so my thoughts will have to wait, although I think Chris Dillow is on the right track.