Election Countdown

Reform and Ukip are not the same

In 2015, Ukip took disaffected voters from all parties. Reform represents a distinctive right-wing force—and a much bigger problem for the Tories

March 18, 2024
Of a feather? Nigel Farage, former leader of Ukip, and Richard Tice, current leader of Reform. Image:  Stefan Rousseau / PA Images
Of a feather? Nigel Farage, former leader of Ukip, and Richard Tice, current leader of Reform. Image: Stefan Rousseau / PA Images

Whatever the truth about the stories of plots to oust Rishi Sunak, his party is plainly in trouble. The polls disagree about the depth of the hole the Tories are in, but they agree that it has been getting deeper. They also agree why. Since last autumn many Tory voters have decided that Sunak’s government is not right-wing enough.

In the past six months, as Tory support has slipped, Reform’s polling average has doubled from 6 to 12 per cent. Whether Sunak stays or goes, his party needs a plan to win back the voters it has lost. A useful starting point is to look at who they are and what they think.

At first sight, Reform today seems to be in the same position as Ukip in 2015, when Nigel Farage’s party won 13 per cent of the national vote. Ukip won only one seat—that held by Douglas Carswell, who had defected from the Conservatives and was re-elected in Clacton. For Carswell, read Lee Anderson in Ashfield—and the likelihood that Reform will win no other seats.

There is, though, a bigger reason to compare 2015 to today. Nine years ago, Ukip’s vote made hardly any difference to the overall election result: a small overall majority for David Cameron’s Conservatives. A detailed analysis of the results by John Curtice, Stephen Fisher and Robert Ford concluded that Ukip damaged Labour and the Tories by much the same amount in marginal seats.

So, could today’s Tories be worrying unduly about Reform’s recent surge? On the contrary, they might not be worrying enough. We can see this by comparing the source of Ukip’s votes in 2015 with Reform’s support today. They are very different. 

Ukip’s vote nine years ago came from all over the place. Note the large number of people who had voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 and switched to Ukip when the Lib Dem vote collapsed. These were not so much avid pro-Europeans who changed their mind as anti-big-battalion voters put off by the Lib Dems’s participation in the Cameron-Clegg coalition. They wanted an alternative insurgent to back. 

This time it’s completely different. The overwhelming majority of Reform’s support is coming from people who voted Conservative in 2019. Whereas Ukip tapped into a broad mood of protest in 2015 against the coalition partners and the main opposition, Reform’s support flows more specifically from disillusion with the Conservatives, and support for a more right-wing agenda than Sunak is offering.

Here are some examples, from various polls conducted by YouGov, Lord Ashcroft and Deltapoll over the past few months.

Immigration is the top priority for Reform voters. When voters are asked which issues are the three “most important to you in deciding how you vote”, the general public puts NHS first (60 per cent), the economy second (56 per cent) and immigration third (30 per cent). Reform supporters put immigration (80 per cent) way ahead of the economy (44 per cent) and NHS (38 per cent).

Reform voters also believe that the government will fail to “stop the small boats”. On a scale of 0 (definitely won’t happen) to 10 (definitely will happen), 69 per cent of Reform supporters say 0, 1 or 2. Only 21 per cent of loyal Tories are equally sceptical. And they are far more concerned with “Islamist extremism” than right-wing extremism. Asked in another Lord Ashcroft poll from 7th to 11th March which is the “bigger threat to Britain’s democracy and way of life”, Reform supporters say Islamist 66 per cent, right-wing 1 per cent, both equally 30 per cent. In contrast, the general public divides: Islamist, 20 per cent, right-wing 15 per cent, both equally 52 per cent.

Most Reform supporters want both public spending and taxes to be reduced. Fifty-five per cent say taxes and public spending are both too high, while just 15 per cent say both are too low and 12 per cent say the balance is about right. Loyal Tories are twice as likely to say “too low” or “right balance” (55 per cent) as both too high (27 per cent).

And, finally, Reform voters have a very different view from loyal Tories as to would make the best party leader. By three-to-one, they think the party would do better under Suella Braverman. By almost three-to-one, loyal Tories fear the party would do worse. In contrast, by a narrow margin, loyal Tories think the party would benefit from switching back to David Cameron, while Reform voters reject the former prime minister the thumbs down by four-to-one.

All in all, Reform, far more than Ukip, represents the rise of a distinctive right-wing force in British politics. When its support grows, it’s overwhelmingly at the expense of the Conservatives; if its support is squeezed at the general election, it will be the Conservatives who benefit.

There is nothing in the data to indicate any significant impact either way on support for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that some of Reform’s support comes from people who used to vote Labour. But they had moved away by 2019 and Keir Starmer has no realistic chance of winning them back. Overwhelmingly, if they don’t vote Reform at the coming election, they will vote Conservative or not vote at all.

So the Tories have a big challenge on their hands. Optimists among them could point to the fact that Reform’s vote could be flaky, and that its highest ratings may result from some online polling panels containing too many voters who follow politics closely and have an above-average interest in Reform. Ipsos, the last redoubt of telephone polls, avoids this slight skew and generally gives Reform a lower rating than other companies.  

Moreover, Reform has been doing far worse in recent byelections than Ukip did in 2012-15. And both Ukip (in 2015) and the Brexit Party (in 2019) saw their vote squeezed as the general election approached.

The Conservatives, then, might be able to claw back at least some of the votes they have lost to Reform, especially if Farage remains on the sidelines. But if they can’t, failure could be fatal. Unless they act quickly and effectively, a long-term split on the right of British politics is now a real possibility, with an insurgent party attracting a well-defined section of the electorate that used to be solidly Conservative.

It's too simple to say that Sunak or his successor must shift the government to the right. That could alienate the Tories’ more moderate supporters and lose the party as many votes as it wins back. Its task is more fundamental: to rediscover the recipe that for two centuries has made it the most successful party in the democratic world. It needs to revive the case and win the argument for the right and centre-right to stay together.

Meanwhile, the plotting goes on, the danger grows and the precipice beckons.