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.

The Lib Dems win in Richmond Park won’t stop Brexit, but it is significant for other reasons.

Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night's by-election in Richmond Park.
Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night’s by-election in Richmond Park.

The result of yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park is an interesting one in that although it may foreshadow a somewhat remarkable political comeback for the Liberal Democrats, it is extremely unlikely to actually change anything.

When Zach Goldsmith forced this by-election following his resignation from Parliament over the Government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, he did so to honour a promise he had made to his prospective constituents prior to being elected in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. He hoped that he would be comfortably re-elected to served as a quasi-independent champion for those against the expansion of Heathrow. But, with all the major candidates running in this by-election being against Heathrow expansion the Liberal Democrats were able to turn the by-election into a referendum on Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, with candidate Sarah Olney pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 and to “resist Brexit in its current form”. In Richmond Park, whose residents voted more than two-to-one in favour of remaining in the European Union, this strategy seems to have worked. The Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000 with a swing of 30.4 percent, to ultimately win by almost 2,000 votes which, in a seat which Goldsmith was widely expected to retain, is quite some margin. The Lib Dems pro-EU stance clearly helped them win, but as Editor of The Spectator (and Richmond Park constitutent) Fraser Nelson recognises, it was also “it was a victory for good, old-fashioned campaigning. And the fact that it was, in effect, a two horse race. A referendum on Zac, and his decision to call a by-election.” The two-horse race point is particularly significant with the results suggesting that many who would ordinarily back Labour, switched to the Lib Dems to block Goldsmith. Labour candidate Christian Wolmar received 1,515 votes, which is less than the number of Labour members who live in Richmond Park, whilst there was also reports that many Labour activists were campaigning on behalf of the Lib Dems in the days before the vote. What this comes back to though is Goldsmith’s Brexit stance which, in a constituency as pro-Remain as Richmond Park, was never going to go down well.

But, although the Lib Dems victory was impressive, and there pro-EU message clearly had a significant effect, it is not really going to change the direction of travel. In short, despite what the Lib Dems have promised in campaigning for this by-election, Brexit will still go ahead. The Lib Dems now have nine MPs who will vote against Article 50. The SNP have indicated that all their 55 MPs will vote against Article 50, whilst five Labour MPs (David Lammy, Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner, Geraint Davies, and Owen Smith) have said that they will vote against the triggering of Article 50, as has Conservative MP Ken Clarke. This would make seventy MPs voting against Article 50, not nearly enough to ‘overturn’ the referendum by voting down Article 50. So to suggest that last night’s Lib Dem victory in Richmond Park will change the course of Brexit is pretty absurd.

Where it might have an effect however, is in highlighting the views of those 48 percent of voters who didn’t back Brexit, which may in turn lead to the Government pursuing more of a ‘soft Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union but looking to remain a part of the Single Market. This is something that many in the Government would likely support, and David Davis and Boris Johnson have both indicated that they may support something like this. Davis indicated yesterday that the Government would strongly consider a deal which involved paying into the EU budget in return for Single Market membership, whilst Boris Johnson is reported to have sad that he’s in favour of the continuing free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

However, overall this by-election is set to have a relatively small (if any) impact upon the direction of policy. Where it may have an impact is in the re-alignment of the political parties on the back of a Liberal Democrat resurgence. As Leader, Tim Farron has looked to establish the Lib Dems as a so-called ‘party of the 48 percent’, and the results in the by-elections in Richmond Park, and last month in Witney, suggest that he is being successful in doing so. Farron described last night’s result as, “ a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.” It seems a bit strong to suggest that it will terrify the Conservatives, but it could certainly give the Conservatives some difficulty at the next General Election. Remember that it was typically Conservative surges in Liberal Democrat seats which secured them their majority at the 2015 General Election, and many of these seats like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham voted Remain in the EU Referendum. It would be unsurprising to see swings towards the Lib Dems in these constituencies similar to what we’ve seen in Witney and Richmond Park. In addition there are the likes of Wokingham and Chipping Barnet which both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but are occupied by Conservative MPs who backed Brexit, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers respectively. It would be unsurprising for the Lib Dems to also challenge in these seats.

But, arguably it is not the Conservatives who are giving the Lib Dems a way back. Given that the Conservatives have a huge lead in the polls (with a recent poll putting them on 44 percent — a lead of sixteen over Labour) losing a few seats to the Lib Dems isn’t really going be a blow to their chances of forming a majority government at the next general election. It is Labour who should really be fearing the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s terrible showing in Richmond Park highlighted their weaknesses, and this could allow the Liberal Democrats to squeeze them nationwide. Labour are going to forced to take a decision on whether or not they back Brexit very soon. Given the number of Labour constituencies which backed Brexit, the Labour Party are going to be forced to back Brexit or face seeing a UKIP surge under Paul Nuttall do the same to them in Northern England and Wales, as the SNP did to them in Scotland. But, this stance could have a negative effect in the urban areas which voted Labour in 2015 but also voted to remain the EU. It remains to be seen, but it does not look as if these voters have particularly warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, and so their vote is arguably up for grabs. What the Richmond Park result (and Labour’s terrible showing) highlights is the Labour Party’s complete lack of a voice on Europe.

The vote in Richmond Park was effectively a futile protest vote against the UK leaving the EU, and as a result it won’t exactly have the Conservatives running for cover. However, the same cannot be said of Labour. What the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats proves is that they have opponents everywhere. In Scotland, the SNP took almost all of their seats in 2015, and Labour show no signs of winning them back, having fallen to third in the polls behind the Scottish Conservatives who have surged on the back of Ruth Davidson’s strong leadership. In England, the Conservatives dominate Labour in all of the swing seats which are essential to forming a majority government — in the South and West of England, Labour are polling lower than ever. In the North of England, this week’s election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP could put the squeeze on Labour at the next general election in areas which voted heavily for Brexit. Whilst the Lib Dems resurgence proves that Labour can’t be complacent in urban areas either.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats will be celebrating their win in Richmond Park and what they may see as a nationwide resurgence, Labour will be worried, as they are now truly teetering on a cliff edge.