Paul Nuttall, the party's new leader, has made this his aimby John Curtice / December 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
Paul Nuttall, the new leader of Ukip ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, has set out a clear and ambitious target for his party. “I want to replace the Labour Party and make Ukip the patriotic voice of working people,” he announced after his election victory was declared on Monday. This ambition is being taken seriously. Unlike many Labour MPs, Nuttall does, after all, speak with a genuine working class accent. Meanwhile, who a few years ago would have anticipated that a party that was famously described by David Cameron a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” would succeed in achieving its ambition of securing an EU referendum in which a majority voted to “Leave” the EU? For all its recent political difficulties Ukip is a party that commends widespread respect if not necessarily admiration. Moreover, at first glance there would appear to be good reason to believe that Nuttall could achieve his ambition. According to NatCen Social Research’s panel of British Social Attitudes survey respondents, no less than 63 per cent of working class voters voted to “Leave” the EU. In last year’s general election support for UKIP among working class voters was roughly twice that amongst graduates. Of course, now that the UK is about to embark on leaving the EU, UKIP will have to find a new tune to sing. Most likely the party will attempt to become the voice of social conservatives, such as those concerned about the cultural change brought about by immigration and who take a tough line on law and order. Such an appeal would seem tailor made to win over working class voters. For example, in the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey 56 per cent of those in routine or semi-routine occupations agreed that “For some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence.” Only 22 per cent disagreed. However, the days when “Labour” and “working class” were synonymous with each other are over. According to BSA well under half (45 per cent) of working class voters backed Labour in May 2015. And while that might have been a much higher level of support than the party secured amongst the electorate as a whole, only one in three of those who voted Labour in 2015 are classified by government statisticians as working class. As a result, the anti-EU sentiment and social conservatism of many a working class voter is not necessarily representative of Labour voters. Rather it is a message to which the Conservative party would appear to be potentially the more vulnerable. According to NatCen’s panel, only 38 per cent of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted to leave the EU. Other surveys have put the figure even lower. In contrast, according to the same survey, 58 per cent of those who voted Conservative last year supported “Leave.” Meanwhile, only 38 per cent of Labour voters support the death penalty, while 41 per cent are opposed. Conservative supporters, in contrast, back the death penalty by 49 per cent to 35 per cent. At the same time, so far at least, UKIP has been relatively more successful at winning over Conservative than Labour voters. According to a large 30,000 internet panel of voters interviewed on behalf of the British Election Study, 12 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 switched to UKIP in 2015, compared with only 5 per cent of those who backed Labour. Even if we trace the history of UKIP support back further to the rather happier days for Labour of the 2005 election, we find that only 8 per cent of those who backed Labour on that occasion switched to UKIP, compared with (again) 12 per cent of those who voted Conservative. Meanwhile, the mountain that Ukip have to climb to win very many Labour seats is steep indeed. The party came second to Labour in just 44 seats in 2015. More importantly, it was less than 10 points behind Labour in only one seat and less than 20 points behind in just a further 14 (in most of which it still did not even manage to come second). Even winning a handful of Labour seats looks like a formidable challenge, let alone trying replace it as the main opposition to the Conservatives. Of course, Labour itself does look highly vulnerable at the moment. It has an average poll rating of just 29 per cent. But it will take more than Nuttall’s scouse accent to turn the erosion of Labour support into a landslide.