Did you know the Lib Dems have lost half a million voters to Ukip? Here’s what I think it means.

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2012

UKIP logoConservative peer Lord Ashcroft — who, as ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie has noted before, spends more on polling than all three parties combined — has today published the latest survey looking at the timely issue of the threat of Ukip. Nigel Farage’s party is now regularly polling around the level of the Lib Dems, seemingly taking voters disproportionately from the Tories, contributing to lengthening Labour poll leads.

I’ve only had chance to glance through the findings so far, but three things stand out:

1) The Lib Dems are also suffering from the rise of Ukip: 7% of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 said they would vote Ukip in a general election tomorrow. That’s almost half a million voters. By comparison, the Tories have shed 12% of their vote (1.3m voters), Labour just 1% (85,000 voters).

12% of those who voted Conservative say they would vote UKIP in an election tomorrow, as do 1% of those who voted Labour and 7% of those who voted Liberal Democrat. 50% of those who would consider voting UKIP voted Conservative at the 2010 general election. 22% voted Labour, 21% voted Liberal Democrat.

2) In part, this is because the Lib Dems have lost their ‘none of the above’ USP:

Now that the Liberal Democrats have been exposed – and have exposed their supporters – to the realities of government, UKIP is the only party (at least this side of the Greens) by which nobody can feel let down. … Liberal Democrat voters from 2010 are also attracted to UKIP by a wider range of factors than Conservative voters. Again, though, the party’s values and the view that it is on the side of people like them are the most important drivers. Immigration and Europe account for a slightly higher proportion of what attracts Lib Dem voters to UKIP than they do for Conservative and Labour voters. This, combined with the fact that they do not want a Conservative government and do not think Labour stand for fairness, suggests that they did not vote Liberal Democrat for positive reasons and are now looking for an alternative way of voting against the main parties.

3) But it’s also because Ukip’s values represent what some voters are looking for:

… in the mix of things that attract voters to UKIP, policies are secondary. It is much more to do with outlook. Certainly, those who are attracted to UKIP are more preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children. All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by UKIP voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority. UKIP, for those who are attracted to it, may be the party that wants to leave the EU or toughen immigration policy but its primary attraction is that it will “say things that need to be said but others are scared to say”. Analysis of our poll found the biggest predictor of whether a voter will consider UKIP is that they agree the party is “on the side of people like me”.

I realise for some the source of this polling, Lord Ashcroft, will taint the findings. I think that would be a mistake. The polling itself appears robust enough to me. Besides its findings ring true — that the party has lost two significant chunks of supporters since the Coalition was formed: (1) those who now actively choose Labour, and (2) those who saw us as the ‘protest vote’ repository, especially in areas where we have (or had) active campaigners ready to take up local causes that directly connected the Lib Dems with the community — for some of those voters, Ukip is now their preferred party.

There are two ways we can regard Ukip. We can dismiss them as ‘fruitbats and loonies’ — to borrow David Cameron’s phrase — but there’s every likelihood that those voters who’re considering voting Ukip will resent the label, especially as most of the Ukip values they’re buying into are those fulsomely represented in the popular press, and are therefore ‘mainstream’ (albeit not within the more rarefied liberal-left online world).

The alternative is to recognise the issues that matter to Ukip voters/considerers, and to tackle them head on. This includes talking about the economic benefits — both of immigration and also of Europe — not in general terms, but in ways which matter to individuals and to their families and local communities.

Equally, we need to recognise that both immigration and Europe are to a large extent displacement concerns. As pollster Peter Kellner points out in relation to immigration:

… there is a huge gulf between people’s perception of immigration as a national issue, and one that affects their own lives. Every fortnight we show respondents a list of 12 issues and ask them which two or three ‘are the most important facing the country at this time’. Every poll this year has placed the economy first, cited by around 80%; but immigration has always come a clear second with 40-50%; the figure in our latest survey is 45%. But when we show people the same list and ask which two or three matter most to ‘you and your family’, the answers are very different. The economy still leads by a mile (currently 66%); but immigration tumbles to just 12%. This time more people cite pensions, health, tax, family life and education.

The economy, pensions, health, tax, family life and education: those are the issues that matter most to voters as individuals. So they should be the issues that continue to matter most to political parties. Focusing on getting those right is the best way to counter the threat of Ukip.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.