UKIP “breakthrough” in perspective

Andrew Spooner

On the day after the 2 May 2013 council elections the BBC posted a lead story on their news website about the previous day’s vote, containing the line: “UKIP is the big story of the night, gaining 139 councillors and beating the Lib Dems into fourth place in projected vote share with 23 per cent.”

Elsewhere on BBC’s online coverage, a blog was published by their chief political correspondent, Nick Robinson, where he told his readers: “It is the day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land”, and “This is a more profound change than you might think.” (Robinson later backtracked on these claims and added a note at the bottom of his original article where he stated “They [UKIP] are not about to challenge for power.”)

However, by the start of the weekend of 4 May, the narrative seemed set in stone – the story of the election was UKIP’s 23 per cent “national breakthrough” and commentators from across the spectrum began relentlessly analysing the potential shifts in the political paradigm for both left and right. Yet, something didn’t seem right. The BBC’s online figures contained little raw data regarding real, on-the-ground voting numbers and vote shares as percentages. Furthermore the BBC’s coverage repeated a key phrase – “if we look at UKIP’s vote share in the seats that they stood in” – as a benchmark from which to extrapolate UKIP’s exceptional national breakthrough.

By Saturday morning 14 of the various areas and councils where the elections had taken place published their actual voting numbers and vote shares. These included parts of the country where UKIP had had their strongest showing such as Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Hampshire. Over on my blog, Moment of Crisis, I published those figures, made some preliminary calculations and arrived at a figure of 18.52 per cent as the UKIP vote share based on those areas only.

How then had the BBC arrived at 23 per cent projected national vote share for UKIP when it appeared that their vote share was only marginally up on their best performance in the 2009 European election of 16.5 per cent – and this in the English shires where they were supposed to be at their strongest? How could UKIP’s vote be considered national when 10 of the 34 councils voting hadn’t returned any UKIP councillors at all and in Bristol, the only urban area involved in last Thursday’s elections, they only polled 4.16 per cent? And when you factored in UKIP’s very poor showing in the 2011 and 2012 council elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where they managed a combined total of only two councillors across all three countries, the idea of a national trend suddenly becomes reduced to the regions of southern and eastern England.

In the days since then I’ve dug further into what kind of numbers UKIP would need to reach a 23 per cent predicted national vote share (PNVS) and speculated on what kind of vote UKIP might get in a general election. The results are surprising and undermine the dominant and favoured narrative on UKIP that is now being widely circulated.

If we assume there will be a 66 per cent voter turn out at the next general election that will give us 31.5 million voters from 47.5 million of the entire electorate. Therefore to secure a PNVS of 23 per cent of 31.5 million UKIP would need a grand total of 7.25 million votes across the entire country.

Of that 31.5 million, roughly 5 million will be from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with the remaining 26.5 million from England. Of that 26.5 million in England roughly 8 million would be from the major urban areas such London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield etc. This leaves 18.5 million voters in the shires, towns and small to medium urban centres.

Given that in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland UKIP don’t really have any base whatsoever. In the 2012 Scottish council elections UKIP secured 0.28 per cent of first preference votes whilst in the 2012 Welsh council elections they secured two council seats in the entire country and in Northern Ireland’s 2011 council elections they managed 0.4 per cent vote share. It’s therefore safe to say that it would be miraculous if UKIP polled 5 per cent across these three constituent parts of the UK.

But, just for arguments’ sake, let’s be extra generous and give UKIP 7.5 per cent or 375,000 general election votes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Now we can factor in a projected result from the 8 million major English urban areas. If we take UKIP’s Bristol showing (4.16 per cent) and their Greater London Assembly vote (4.5 per cent), you would need to more than double it to give UKIP a uniform 12.5 per cent across all the major urban centres that would equal 1 million votes.

These very generous projected vote shares give us a grand combined total of 1,375,000 votes from the major urban centres, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These numbers would also mean that from the remaining 18.5 million votes UKIP would need to secure 5,875,000 votes or a uniform 31.75 per cent vote share across the board in the English shires, towns and small to medium urban centres in order to attain the 23 per cent projected national vote share. Given that UKIP, even during the Eastleigh by-election only managed 27.8 per cent, the notion that they could sustain 31.75 per cent across most of England seems implausible to say the very least. Bring those shares in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the cities down to a more realistic 5 per cent (250,000) and 7.5 per cent (600,000) respectively and UKIP would need to secure 6.4 million or 34.6 per cent of the remaining English vote to reach a 23 per cent share.

If you then reverse the equation and take a generous UKIP share of 23 per cent or 4,255,000 of 18.5 million voters in the shires, towns, small and medium urban centres plus 12.5 per cent or 1 million voters from the major cities UKIP would then need 2 million or 40 per cent of the vote in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to take it up to the 7.25 million for a PNVS of 23 per cent. Once again, the numbers just don’t add up and so the BBC’s 23 per cent  figure must be greeted not only with scepticism but cynicism.

So, what would a more realistic UKIP vote share look like? If we agree that UKIP’s actual vote share was 20 per cent last week – still a very decent number – and extrapolated that across the 18.5 million voters in the shires, towns, small and medium urban centres we’d get 3.7 million votes. Add in a more realistic 2.5 per cent, or 125,000 votes, from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and 7.5 per cent, or 600,000 votes, from the large cities and you’d get a combined national total of UKIP 4,425,000 votes.

As a share of 31.5 million, and based on relatively generous numbers, 4,425,000 is 14.04 per cent, far below the 23 per cent projected national vote share concocted by the BBC. In fact, I would instinctively go further and state that due to differing voting patterns and a lack of adequate candidates UKIP would, at their very best, likely only just make 10 per cent as PNVS in a general election.

At this stage these numbers represent preliminary investigations but they do assert a challenge to the emerging discourse on UKIP. They also underline questions regarding the BBC’s 23 per cent as UKIP’s PNVS and lead this writer to believe the BBC’s number was spurious hyperbole. My view is that the BBC went with the largest polling number they could find in order to shore up their own sensationalist narrative of the “UKIP breakthrough” story. Furthermore what is missing from the BBC’s coverage is an explanation of how they reached 23 per cent as their PNVS. It would certainly be interesting to take a close look at the methodology behind it – it would certainly be interesting to see how could reach a 23 per cent PNVS figure.

So, what does this all mean for the Labour party? The first thing to point out is that to all intents and purposes UKIP are, in fact, just Tories by another name. Labour should be standing aloof, statesperson-like, as they watch Farage, Cameron et al tear each other to pieces, shaking their heads disapprovingly and putting a positive message on getting the economy moving, jobs and homes.

Of course, for some, one reaction to UKIP would be for Labour to tack towards UKIP’s position in order to hold onto any possibly of switching voters. Caution should be urged regarding this strategy as it would likely have few benefits as the small number of UKIP voters who’d switch to Labour would almost certainly be offset by those Labour supporters who would find any rightward turn unpalatable and stay at home.

Does this mean that UKIP and its voters can be ignored or dismissed as cranks? No, of course not. But when most people talk of fear of immigration what they are really talking of is a fear that they won’t get their share of scarcer resources. For me, Labour need to address the fears of UKIP voters and not pander to them. To do that Labour needs to create positive policy-led solutions to the problems at the root of those fears, not least through creating affordable housing, decent, secure jobs and a sense of community engagement with the political process. Just wearing UKIP’s clothes reveals a lack of purpose, ideas and courage. It’s also unlikely to win Labour few, if any, extra votes.

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