Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 12 October 2014


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.  


  1. In some ways, the rise of the populist parties, like UKIP, Front Nationale, and also recently the AfD in Germany, is not just a disillusionment of Conservatives, but also a split going through the labour movement. The two main axes of political ideology are social and economic. The labour movement is distinguished from other ideological streams by its 'leftiness' on the economic axis. It is usually assumed, that this leftiness also extends to social issues. In a way, this has happened and is true in the USA, where 'Reagan Conservatives" and the Tea Party movement basically split the working class apart so that an intra-party mix of conservative and liberal positions does not exist anymore. But without the force of a strong two-party-system, there are places for economically conservative, but socially liberal parties (which the LibDems have turned into and which Labour is approaching), and a socially conservative, economically liberal party, and that is what UKIP might be going for. Immigration is here regarded as a social issue, not an economic one. Europe is also more of a social issue in their perspective. It's also a countermovement against globalization/internationalization.

    1. @ManchurianDevil (James Stanhope)13 October 2014 at 08:09

      "Countermovement against globalization ..." -- and also against neoliberal austerity program, if UKIP voters really do want to retain NHS & renationalize transport.

    2. " Immigration is here regarded as a social issue, not an economic one. Europe is also more of a social issue in their perspective. It's also a countermovement against globalization/internationalization."

      I absolutely agree with this. And the mainstream macro profession has been slow to realise it. As Marx and Polanyi pointed out, globalisation can lead to a separation of the production process from local workers. Together with very large movement of labour it leads to a sense of disempowerment. A large group of people do not feel they have a stake in the social, political and economic

      It is time for the profession to start putting some of its obsessions (such as the deification of classical economic theories like comparative advantage, micro-founded macro and inappropriate use of mathematics for humanistic issues) aside and start reading some of the history of its discipline, of where they are likely to find explanations, and maybe, solutions.

  2. Psephologists tend to see the UK election of 1974 as being the one that saw the break from the two-party Labour-Tory state that WW2 had ushered in.

    Secondly, much of UKIP spiritually dates back to Enoch Powell and his break with Heath, which some saw as Powell's opportunistically newfound dislike of the EEC. Powell's 'alternative manifesto' removed foreign aid, for example. And Powell loved, was infatuated with Westminster Parliament, whatever those union dockers felt who marched in support of 'Rivers of Blood'.

    I note also that the BNP vote has collapsed, as the extreme right vote did when Thatcher was in power.

  3. Possibly a disaffected voter syndrome. May be more a case of resurgence of the moderate right or traditional centre right Conservative, who, believes in NHS but more efficient than currently, is anti-immigration, is not against some more progressive taxation, is for low debt, can't stand banker's bonuses and so on. Rather than the neo-liberal right who are have just gone mad with their ideas. Right sided values don't always mean neo-liberal right sided economics.

    The fact that some Labour supporters switched just reflects their more moderate and centre left positional rather than a more extreme left position.

    Voting is about values and not always about economic positions. It is a fertile ground for UKIP.

  4. Asking people about the importance of the EU amongst a plethora of other policy issues is a disengenuous polling question. The EU plays a role in all of the issues that voters have to consider. The EU is a tier of government - it makes binding law, It's court is a superior court. The EU is not a policy issue of the British government (or opposition) it is itself a government in being. This is why the voters who say they will vote to leave the EU have grown despite the same voters not ranking the EU as important within the meaningless frame of a domestic policy menu.

    Who exercises power?
    How did they obtain it?
    How can they be removed?

    These were the questions raised against EEC governance by that famous social and economic right winger Tony Benn. The British left described the EEC as "a bankers ramp" - and in that prediction they certainly were spot on.

    Simon is right - the fact that the running is now being made by a right wing party does not make the EU a right wing issue. It is the same issue it has always been - by what right and under what accountability does the EU make our law? Nationalists/ Patriots are offended by the rolling dissolution of the nation and democrats are offended by the rolling dissolution of democracy. This combines into is a large and increasingly self aware constituency that is currently holding it's nose and voting UKIP because they cannot get control over their own nation/ politicians until our great new European oligarchy is removed from authority.

  5. It's the same in Denmark - it's left wing politics with a xenophobic overlay (Danish People's Party) - a.k.a. National Socialism. UKIP, Front National, Danish People's Party, etc... are outisde of the post-WWII paradigm as they are a return to the old politics of National Socialism. World goes in cycles - we are devolving.

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  7. Events in 2004 were surely behind the rise of UKIP. UKIP might be anti-Europe, but I think the voters are anti historically high (and sustained) rates of immigration -particularly that which arose from the rapid expansion of the EU eastwards to much poorer members. They are not rascist. Generally actually, you would probably find they have a lot of sympathy for Syrian asylum seekers (as does, you might be surprised, Farage). Essentially they have seen a Blair boom followed by a bust with little tangible outcomes for employment and low income groups. Large and uncontrolled immigration of cheap labour is essentially the last thing they feel we need.

    1. In your first sentence you say 'surely', but where is your evidence. As my post shows, the big rise in concern about immigration was before 2004. The evidence for a 'Blair boom' is dubious too: see

    2. The conservatives would initially have benefitted from the sudden rise in "economic immigration" from 2004. I believe it was at this point when support for Europe began to collapse. (There was also a large number of people disconnected from the political process who did not benefit from increased capital gain on house prices and higher incomes for people working in the financial sector etc during the Blair years - so sure those people were given a voice by UKIP and this phenomenon to some extent existed before 2004).

      When it was understood that the Coalition was not able to deal with this (and other related and unrelated) problems, people started looking for something else - and their support collapsed - looks like 2011 on your graph. It also gave a voice to people who already felt unrepresented in the political process. So sure it was not just 2004 and it was not just immigration, although decisions made during that time regarding immigration and European expansion were critical in reducing support for Europe, uncontrolled movement of labour from the new EU states, reducing support for the major parties, and increasing the profile of UKIP.

      I think if they find a solution to long-term unemployment of native workers (and politicians say that unemployment is falling, and not employment is rising - which people know - and also know that a lot of foreigners are entering and taking jobs) we will see a neutralisation of the immigration issue. Although I still think congestion (new housing and also more roads, airports, trains necessary etc) and pressures on health and education will be a problem.

      The country will start to look more like Japan. That is we will have to get used to - high-density living. That will mean the end of houses in zone one and two in London, and a lot more tower blocks - which we are already seeing.

      People will get used to it - it will be the new norm. Environmentalists and English Heritage, though, will probably not be happy!

    3. Just found out a new fourty-story (!) tower apartment block is to go up around the corner from me in Surrey Quays.

    4. Apologies - I originally wrote something longer with this data in, and forgot that I decided it would be better in a later post (coming soon).

    5. Look forward to that. Also on the above link from the migrationobservatory, its policy recommendation:

      "The implication is that labour immigration from the EU could be reduced by changes to the public policies and institutions that have contributed to a growing demand for migrant labour. These policy changes include, for example, more and better training of British workers (e.g. in sectors like construction where the lack of a comprehensive training system fuels the demand for experienced East European migrant labour), changes in welfare policies to encourage more British workers to join the workforce (something the government has already begun to do), and better wages and conditions in some low waged public sector jobs."

      I think such active labour market policies are also the answer to dealing with long term unemployment and getting rid of excuses like NAIRU.

    6. You can advocate anti-austerity, aggregate demand expansionary macro-policy in a liquidity trap arguments as much as you like but you will not solve long term structural unemployment unless you put in measures that actively and directly address it. My guess is that an expansionary macro-policy and recovery will increase numbers employed - but this will be met by an increase in eastern european workers; it will barely make a dent in the unemployment and underemployment rate or in low skilled wages.


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