Never mind a UKIP surge, a UKIP collapse would be just as dangerous to the Labour Party.

New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall celebrates his victory with outgoing leader Nigel Farage on Monday.
New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall celebrates his victory with outgoing leader Nigel Farage on Monday.

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.

Will Richmond Park ‘Sack Zac’?

Zac Goldsmith.

On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October. 

Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives. 

However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit. 

Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow. 

As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here. 

In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50. 

Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith. 

Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes. 

What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum. 

Whoever wins, it is going to be close.