Written by Professor Geoffrey Evans & Dr Jon Mellon
At the final stages of the EU election campaign the leaders put their cases forward to promote their parties. The latest and final interview on The Today Programme on Wednesday 21st May saw Nigel Farage proclaiming the status of UKIP as a broad appeal party, taking votes from across both Conservatives and Labour. His point being that UKIP is not just a transient ‘protest vote’ against the current government, despite typically forthright probing and suggestions to the contrary from John Humphreys. Farage is adamant that UKIP are “Picking up lumps of old labour support” and that former Conservatives comprise only a minority of UKIP’s support.
But what does the most recent wave of British Election Study data (which was taken between 20th Feb-9th March 2014) tell us? Is UKIP the new BNP? Do they pull in the disaffected old left working class voters deserted by ‘new’ Labour in recent decades? It has become commonplace to assert this, not just by Farage, but in various journalistic accounts and even academic ones. The implication being that UKIP is not only a threat to the Conservatives but also to Labour.
Well here’s a frightening graph for David Cameron: This is 2010 vote choice among those intending to vote UKIP in the European Elections.
UKIP’s voters are overwhelmingly stolen from the Conservatives. Even the Liberals lose more than Labour. This fits the pattern found in earlier work when Labour were in power – the EU election defections were primarily from them. So this looks like a protest vote. The issue is how ‘sticky’ UKIP supporters will be over the next 12 months or so. The implications of these figures are dramatic and disturbing for the Conservatives, if we believe that UKIP voters will vote this way in the general election. Or alternatively, a very promising one for the government if we think that UKIP voters will swing back to their long term parties in 2015. This implies the Conservatives will be boosted far more in 2015 than will Labour. Given this current deflation of government support Labour are doing very poorly currently. However, on another blog here Jane Green presents evidence that many UKIP voters don’t intend, currently, to switch back – a point alluded to by Mr Farage in that same Today Programme interview. In that case the Conservatives will suffer and Labour will benefit with, ironically, the likely outcome being no EU referendum.
The idea that UKIP are picking up old Labour supporters is also not supported by evidence on the social class of their intended voters. There is some support amongst those in manual occupations, but their strongest support comes from employers and the self-employed – these are Mrs Thatcher’s hard-core supporters, not Labour’s.
Here’s the breakdown of UKIP support in EU elections by social class (using NS-SEC categories).
Employers (class 1.1), self-employed (4) and lower supervisory (5) and routine manual workers (7) have the highest levels of support to UKIP. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s also private sector employees who have the highest support. This certainly doesn’t look like a simple case of the white working class supporting UKIP. Much of their support is from the Conservative heartlands, and even the vast majority of those workers who intend to vote for them have not defected from Labour: only 17% of UKIP voters voted Labour in 2010 (the same amount who voted Liberal-Democrat), compared with 45% who voted for the Conservatives.
Part of the reason for the spread of support might lie in the drivers behind the UKIP vote. Because working class support for UKIP has been thought of in terms of the threat to wages and jobs posed by immigration as well as more general concerns about cultural change and, of course, the EU itself, we included measures of cultural and economic threat as well as voting intention in a Euro referendum in statistical models of UKIP voting. When responses to all three questions are included in our models, European preferences and cultural threat are statistically significant but economic threat is not. A simple fear of job competition is not the main concern of voters. So for those who are disturbed by the rise of UKIP: don’t blame the workers, blame the Thatcherites.
It suggests also that John Humphreys’ proposed epitaph for Mr Farage: Nigel farage: he led a great protest party, may well be on the money. Unless perhaps UKIP supporters really can really be relied upon to persist in their current preferences. Only time – and further waves of the British Election Study – will tell. But even then, their overwhelmingly Conservative origins and their distribution across constituencies in a first-past-the-post election is only more likely to ensure a Conservative defeat; not a UKIP breakthrough. Labour must be delighted with Mr Farage, he is their secret weapon.