Matthew Goodwin, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, has published a very interesting piece in the Financial Times about the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a fourth national party in the UK.  The article draws heavily from his book entitled Revolt on the Right and argues that UKIP may not only split the right vote with the Conservatives but may also be appealing to traditional Labour voters.

“The events in Clacton [where the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected to UKIP] will be seen by many as validating one of the oldest myths about Ukip; that it is nothing more than a second home for disgruntled Conservatives. Mr Carswell’s defection will be especially welcomed on the left, where many argue Ukip is dividing the right and clearing the path for Labour’s return to power in 2015. This is dangerously misguided.”

In short, Labour cannot assume that the rise of UKIP is necessarily positive for it. The reason is demographics. UKIP appeals to the group of voters who are traditionally Labour leaning: older, white, working class voters who “lack qualifications, felt excluded from Britain’s economic transformation long before the crises, are cut adrift from politics” and are worried about the cultural and economic effects of immigration.  Thus, if these voters were to start to vote for UKIP, this would hurt Labour’s electorial chances. Goodwin shows that this threat is very real:

“For our book, Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and I ranked all seats according to their demographic receptiveness to Ukip. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, most are in Labour territory where MPs are battling with the same cocktail as Mr Carswell: economic stagnation, unease over migration, an entrenched anti-politics consensus, and anxieties over rapid social change. Of the 20 seats most demographically receptive to Ukip, 18 have Labour incumbents. Of the top 50, Labour holds 42.”

As the author notes, receptiveness to UKIP does not necessarily mean that people will vote for that party – the voters still need to be persuaded that UKIP is a viable alternative. (Also I would imagine that years or even decades of voting for one party is a hard voting habit for a new party to break!) Goodwin argues that the recent European elections provide some basis for thinking that the electability of UKIP is increasing.  As he states:

“…a cursory glance at the recent European parliament results reveals the direction of travel. Ukip comfortably won the popular vote in a swath of Labour territory, and talks ambitiously of becoming the main rival to Labour in northern England. It appears to be succeeding….Since 2010, Ukip has grown fastest among the groups in which Labour is struggling most: the over-65s, the working-class and those who left education early. Ukip is tearing off this section of the electorate, creating a fundamental divide in British politics between those with the skills, education and resources to adapt, and those who have little and feel intensely angry.”

What UKIP has managed to achieve is to be the “most working-class movement since Michael Foot’s Labour Party”.  But it is not “populist” in the sense that it appeals to all sectors of the population – it instead appeals to those “left behind” who are concentrated in certain areas in the UK.  Since Members of Parliament are elected under the first-past-the-post electoral system, having your voters clustered in geographic areas is essential. 

Time will tell if UKIP does manage to break into parliament as the fourth party. But it certainly has shook things up for the UK political establishment, which is a good thing. I was interested to learn of the blue collar appeal of UKIP as it seems that the Labour Party in the UK is no longer the natural home of this part of the population.

A similar phenomenon might be happening in New Zealand’s political landscape as well. We have two socially conservative parties here: the New Zealand First Party and the Conservatives who are polling at around 10-12% of the national vote between them. Are these parties taking votes from the traditional blue collar party: Labour? With Labour polling in the mid-20s and the centre-right party (National) polling in the mid-to high 40s it certainly seems as if the socially conservative parties are pulling voters from the left and not the right of the spectrum.

If these inferences are correct it would mark a significant shift in New Zealand politics and would show that the Labour party in the UK and in NZ are not perhaps quite so appealing to, well, labour.  

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...