Since the election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP, a lot has been written about how he is set to bring about a UKIP surge in the North of England. This viewpoint is based on pretty sound principles: on average, Labour voters is the North of England voted in favour of leaving the EU by a margin of around two-to-one, with this even higher in some areas. Therefore, given Labour’s lack of clarity on where they stand in terms of continuing EU membership and their simple lack of voice in the whole debate, it stands to reason that many of their voters could be up for grabs at the next general election. Step forward Paul Nuttall. Many believe that his working-class Liverpudlian roots could propel UKIP to a string of seats in the North. As you’d expect, Nuttall holds the same hardline views on immigration, crime, and the European Union that were held by his predecessor as Leader of UKIP (not counting Diane James), Nigel Farage. But, what he lacks is Farage’s privileged background, with Farage having been educated at Dulwich College and then worked as a commodities broker in the City of London. The argument goes that Nuttall can gain the support of Labour voters who voted to leave the EU, but were never going to back Nigel Farage when it came to a general election.
Veteren Labour MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, alluded to this in a column for The Times on Wednesday:
“UKIP was an accidental threat to Labour. It stumbled on disgruntled Labour voters and yet it picked up nearly a million by the 2015 election. Now that UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is focused on wooing them, Labour faces an unprecedented threat.”
Nuttall himself alluded to this in his acceptance speech after winning the leadership on Monday,
“My ambition is not insignificant: I want to replace the Labour party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people.”
However, it remains to be seen quite how he plans to do this. For a start, UKIP remains in disarray. After pitching himself as the ‘unity’ candidate in the leadership election, Nuttall did what he needed to do and gave jobs to those who previously opposed his candidacy in an attempt to unify the party, the likes of Peter Whittle and Suzanne Evans were given top jobs. However, this is all well and good, but if he had any hope of targeting Labour in the North then the main thing that he would need to address would be his party’s future funding. The party’s main benefactor has in the past been businessman Arron Banks, but he backed Raheem Kassam in the leadership election and he remains very close to Nigel Farage. In addition, in recent weeks he has been talking about his own political project aimed at ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, although it is not clear as to whether this is going to directly involve UKIP or not. What is clear, it that financing from Banks is by no means a sure thing, and with financing not forthcoming from anywhere else (remember that UKIP fell behind even the BNP in last month’s donations rankings) the party’s ability to function effectively in the future is surely in doubt somewhat.
But, perhaps more relevant, is whether there are actually many Labour seats in the North of England that UKIP have any real hope of claiming. Recent research from academic Matthew Goodwin classed twenty Labour seats as being vulnerable to UKIP under the leadership of Paul Nuttall, including seats held by high-profile MPs Alan Johnson, Tristram Hunt, Jon Cruddas, Gloria De Piero, Caroline Flint, and Rosie Winterton. In most of these seats UKIP are already in second place, or a strong third place, and all voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. However, most still have pretty strong majorities. For example, in the 2015 General Election, Alan Johnson won his seat by 29.3 percent, Caroline Flint won by 21 percent, and Tristram Hunt by 16.6 percent. Yes, it is true that in this week’s Richmond Park by-election, the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Zach Goldsmith’s majority of 23 percent. Therefore it would be, in theory, possible for UKIP to overturn majorities of these size. However, the key difference is that in Richmond Park it was effectively a head-to-head between Goldsmith and the Lib Dems: the Conservatives didn’t field a candidate and nor did UKIP or the Green Party; whilst although Labour fielded a candidate, they didn’t campaign particularly hard, and it has been reported that many local Labour activists actually campaigned for the Lib Dems in order to force Goldsmith out. For UKIP to perform in a similar way in these seats would require some sort of deal with the Conservatives to stop the anti-Labour vote being split, I see this as being extremely unlikely, and as such UKIP overturning majorities as large as these. Where they could make inroads is in seats such as Heywood and Middleton where Labour MP Liz McInnes has a majority of 10.9 percent, whilst in the 2014 by-election for the seat, McInnes was only able to defeat UKIP candidate John Bickley by 2.2 percent. With a Leave vote of 62 percent, Heywood and Middleton would certainly be a realistic target for UKIP. The same could be said of seats like Dagenham and Rainham where Labour have a majority of around 11 percent, but UKIP received almost 30 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election, despite not putting much in the way of resources into the constituency. However, on the whole, it is hard to see a surge that would allow UKIP to usurp Labour as the party of the North. It is easy to see UKIP taking a few Labour seats, maybe as many as six to eight — although this would require a seriously strong performance, and quite a lot of money — but to suggest that UKIP could directly destroy Labour in the North seems fanciful.
However, the same could not be said of a UKIP collapse. There are approximately sixty Labour seats where the Labour majority over the Conservatives is less than the UKIP vote. Were UKIP to collapse and haemorrhage support, then it’s difficult to see UKIP voters migrating to Labour, a party which still doesn’t seem to have much of an idea as to where it stands on Brexit. Instead, these voters are more likely to vote for the Conservatives, who have committed themselves to ensuring the Britain leaves the EU. It is difficult to know exactly which party UKIP voters backed before they voted for UKIP, but although UKIP have recently been suggested as a real danger to Labour, historical evidence suggests that in the past they have been far more successful at winning Conservative voters than they have Labour voters. The British Election Study has found that of voters who voted Conservative in the 2010 General Election, approximately twelve percent switched to UKIP in the 2015 General Election, and this was despite David Cameron having promised a referendum on EU Membership if he won. For Labour the figure was estimated at five percent. Surely it will take more than Paul Nuttall’s Scouse accent to reverse this trend?
Nuttall could definitely attract some Labour voters in the North, who backed Brexit and are disillusioned with their party’s stance. However, could they win enough to take a number of seats? Almost certainly not. What is more likely is that at the next general election we see the Conservatives make gains in Northern England that would have been considered impossible ten years ago. This could be from UKIP eating into the Labour vote and allowing the Conservatives to come through or, from UKIP collapsing and their vote going to the Conservatives. With UKIP’s financial problems well documented, I would argue that the second possibility is a little more likely but, who knows? Despite the EU Referendum having taken place, there is still scope for UKIP to continue to fight on the issue of the EU.
If UKIP can secure funding then they could take Labour seats at the next general election. If they can’t secure funding, then their collapse could allow the Conservatives to take a significant number of Labour seats in the North of England. Either way, Labour MPs should be worried.