Thanks to some new research from Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, we now have the clearest picture yet of where Ukip’s support is coming from. The profile of Ukip supporters is strongly skewed towards older, white, male voters who finished their education at an early age.
The reality of life to many people in this group is that they grew up in a society of low unemployment, where manufacturing and heavy manual work was available and well paid, where physical strength and resilience were prized. From other research, we know that immigration overall has been positive for the country as a whole, but has had a negative impact on a minority of the population. This minority of the population are primarily these older, less qualified, male, former-manual workers. These are today’s Ukip supporters.
There are two starkly different realities of life – both are true for the people living them. For a young, graduate in the south of England, immigration is the source of variety of life, Europe is a market and work comes and goes, but it is there if your cv and inter-personal skills are up to scratch.
For many Ukip supporters, cvs, inter-personal skills, immigration and contract work are threats, not a means to a life-affirming career. While other groups in society have been the focus of sympathetic, or sometimes unsympathetic, attention, who has been taking any notice of this group? Their forbears were the, fit, vocal and respected, salt of the earth – glamorised in election posters, history books and fiction.
What are the implications of all this for the other parties? Ukip has certainly drawn some support from protest voters who have moved from the Lib Dems now that they are in government. Ukip has drawn some support from Conservatives who are strongly Eurosceptic. But, for the most part the Ukip supporters sound just like the bedrock of Labour support up to the 1980s.
The Labour Party has, partly deliberately, and in many ways sensibly in view of changing demographics, shifted its support towards women, younger and more highly-educated voters. In the long run this is likely to be a productive strategy, going with the grain of society. In the short run, older, white, men without degrees are left more or less disenfranchised and ripe for being recruited by a new, angrier, party which might shake things up on their behalf.
Ukip has in some ways been lucky and in some ways very clever. The party’s main focus on Europe is not a major concern of many of its supporters, but in the process of putting this message out it has stumbled on a relatively-untapped pool of support. This pool is limited and never likely to be sufficient to make much of an impact in Westminster politics, but it is enough to give the other parties a fright and to get people talking about the formerly-taboo subjects of immigration and Europe.
The Conservatives have panicked first and panicked most over Ukip, perhaps unnecessarily. The Lib Dems are resigned to losing the protest vote. That came with the territory of being in government. Labour has been preoccupied with its internal affairs and relations with the trades unions and has probably not yet woken up fully to the potential impact of Ukip in some of its safe seats, especially in northern England – seats where the Conservatives are not the threat.
This risk has already been glimpsed when George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election, taking a seat that had had a Labour majority of 5,763 in 2010. The Lib Dems won Redcar in 2010, a seat which had had a Labour majority of over 21,000 in 1997.In Scotland, the SNP took Glasgow East in the 2008 by-election, where the Labour majority was 13,507 in 2005. Some of Labour’s safe seats are clearly only safe as long as no-one really attacks them. In many that attack is not going to come from the Conservatives.
Overall, the Conservatives have probably over-panicked and Labour need to do a bit more (but not too much) panicking about their northern strongholds. For the Lib Dems, there may have been a loss of protest voters, but no point in panicking – they have already gone and they are not coming back.
Don’t panic Captain Miliband – well, maybe just a bit!