Healey and the UKIP threat

by Bob Pitt

Labour MP John Healey has an article on the Guardian website entitled “Why Labour must win back working class voters from Ukip”. He argues that the Tories won the general election at least in part because Labour lost many of its voters to the xenophobic right, and he outlines polices he says can regain their electoral support.

Healey wraps up his anti-Ukip message in progressive-sounding language, for example by referring to the need for “active trade unions to protect the pay and conditions of workers” in order to combat Ukip. He also talks about “an entrepreneurial industrial policy that creates good jobs”. Maybe I’m being unduly sceptical, but that strikes me as mostly window dressing.

Healey is hardly going to support the repeal of the anti-union laws that have contributed to the weakening of trade union organisation, is he? Nor is he likely to advocate the level of state intervention in the economy that would be necessary to restore the UK’s manufacturing base.

In practice, I suspect, Healey’s anti-Ukip strategy will concentrate on stepping up Labour’s anti-migrant rhetoric. By giving legitimacy to Ukip’s stance on immigration, that would have the effect of strengthening Ukip’s appeal to voters, not undermining it.

In his article Healey heavily hypes up the threat Ukip poses to Labour, asserting that “Ukip hurt us in Tory-Labour marginals by eating into our working-class support”. That possibility cannot be excluded – it may be, for example, that an increase in the Ukip vote contributed to Ed Balls’ defeat in Morley and Outwood – but in the absence of an empirical study of voting patterns in those seats all Healey can offer to substantiate his claim is anecdotal evidence and guesswork.

He finds it significant that “the Ukip share of the vote was higher in Labour-held seats than in Conservative-held ones”. But that is what you would expect, given Ukip’s appeal to C2 and DE voters, who tend to make up a larger proportion of the electorate in Labour constituencies. It does not follow that Ukip drew more of its support from working-class Labour voters than it did from Tory voters.

It is in fact a well-established feature of Ukip’s rise that its votes have been “overwhelmingly stolen from the Conservatives”. Of those who voted Ukip in 2015, according to Lord Ashcroft’s figures, only 14% had voted Labour in 2010, whereas 43% had voted Tory. More of them had voted Lib Dem in 2010 (18%) than voted Labour.

Healey writes ominously: “I saw this rising Ukip threat in my own South Yorkshire constituency”. He fails to mention that he coasted home in his Wentworth and Dearne seat with an absolute majority, winning 56.9% of the vote. It is true that Ukip finished in second place, having increased their vote by 16.7% compared with 2010. But their candidate still finished well behind Healey, with 24.9% of the vote.

In order for Ukip to pose a real threat in Healey’s seat, they would need to make serious inroads into the Labour vote. But there is little evidence they are doing that. Ukip’s advance in Wentworth and Dearne was at the expense of the Lib Dems and Tories, who lost 13.5% and 2.7% of their 2010 vote respectively. Healey, by contrast, increased his vote by 6.3%.

Healey’s views presumably carry some weight within the parliamentary party, as he was appointed to the Labour taskforce set up last year to address the electoral threat from Ukip.

As part of his campaign to alert Labour to the Ukip menace, Healey tells us, he “got Dr Matthew Goodwin, one of the co-authors of the excellent Revolt on the Right, to discuss Ukip with Labour MPs”. But Goodwin is the last person Labour MPs should be listening to, given his record of grossly exaggerating Ukip’s popular support and electoral prospects.

Here is Goodwin being interviewed by the Telegraph in March:

Basing his forecasts on visits to Ukip’s target seats, he said: “My view is that Ukip is likely to win six Parliamentary constituencies. They have pretty much got three or four seats now in the bag unless there is a monumental mistake and a car crash before May 7.”

Prof Goodwin – one of the most widely respected experts on the rise of Ukip – said national polls, which show Ukip’s support on around 14 per cent, tended to underestimate support for the Eurosceptic party….

Prof Goodwin forecast “a far more convincing win for Farage than people currently acknowledge” in Thanet South, where his campaign was being run in below the radar ward by ward public meetings.

This all turned out to be complete nonsense, of course. As we know, in reality Ukip got 12.6% of the vote nationally and just a single MP, while Nigel Farage was easily defeated in Thanet South, gaining 32.4% of the vote compared with 38.1% for the victorious Tory candidate.

One of the Labour-held seats that Goodwin repeatedly warned was under serious threat from Ukip was Great Grimsby. Based on the 2010 general election result this was a highly marginal constituency, where the incumbent Labour MP Austin Mitchell had just held on with 32.7% of the vote, only narrowly ahead of the Tory candidate on 30.5%.

In April last year Goodwin went so far as to assure the local paper that “Great Grimsby is probably the most favourable seat for Ukip” and helpfully offered his advice to Farage that the Ukip leader should consider standing there. Austin Mitchell dismissed Goodwin’s comments as a “joke”, and he wasn’t far wrong. Ukip in fact finished in third place with 25% of the vote, well behind the successful Labour candidate Melanie Onn who got 39.8%.

If he takes his inspiration from Matthew Goodwin, it’s no wonder Healey’s analysis of Ukip’s challenge to Labour is flawed. I’m all in favour of an objective assessment of the effect that the rise of Ukip has had on the Labour vote, but Healey’s evidence-free, Goodwin-inspired scaremongering is certainly not it.

8 comments on “Healey and the UKIP threat

  1. Alan Ji on said:

    Readers should know that John Healey was previously Head of Campaigns and Communications for the TUC

  2. Charlie Mansell on said:

    Interesting points. In 2010 Labour polled 30% and 37% voted Tory after a swing against Labour (I’m using the GB totals scored herehttp://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7186 ). In all polling it was absolutely clear that a large percentage of UKIP voters voted Tory in 2010, but Labour was unpopular then. The bigger question is how did those UKIP voters vote in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and it is a reasonable inference there was a larger proportion of UKIP voters who voted Labour when we won elections even if you do not use the research by Goodwin here: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/ukipwatch/100256765/meet-ukip-britains-most-working-class-party/

    However even if you were still to argue that three-quarters of UKIP voters voted Tory in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the other problem is the distribution of votes in 2015. Lets assume that 2015 Tories are clearly all Tory at 38% and there are 13% UKIP voters who mainly voted Tory at 13%. That makes for 51% of the 2015 vote who are essentially pro-Tory on your analysis above. On top of that we have 8% Lib Dems who mainly polled strongly In Tory facing seats after a big drop of votes back to Labour in those seats. Labour advanced strongly in many of its third placed seats like the one I live in. Those remaining pro coalition and pro-Orange Book Lib Dem voters were two-thirds likely to be Tory over Labour based on the history of the Tory vote in those seats. Thus up to 58% of the 2015 vote was cast for clearly pro-austerity parties to the right of Labour compared to 31% labour and around 9% for other parties on the left such as Greens and SNP and Plaid and SDLP. In other words 40% for the left parties. The big question is, if we assume that UKIP votes are essentially Tory for all the 1997 to 2010 period as you imply, where does Labour gain votes from in 2020? I would welcome your views?

  3. Charlie Mansell on said:


    I assume the narrative is around, we don’t want to win UKIP voters we want to motivate non-voters. The posting was about the voting behaviour of UKIP voters (with an above average older white working class male background to them) so I commented on that. Turnout dropped heavily in 2001 for all parties. If it hadn’t dropped all round Labour’s 400 plus seats from 1997 would have dropped then, but it actually stayed the same. Turnout dropped most in safe Labour seats and less so in marginals, which is why the Tories are wanting to implement the boundary review. Turnout has dropped a lot over the western world in the last 30 years, but research into this has happened most in the United States, showing hight levels of people who are not angry but generally switched off. http://nonvotersinamerica.com/ I suspect the traditional social norms on voting around families (outside recent migrant communities) have strongly declined. When I was a child the other kids knew their parents voting patterns. When I do voter ID now the parents are often very uncomfortable talking about it in front of the older kids. Getting voter turnout up outside of making it compulsory strikes me as very activist intensive, but from what I see the activists tend to prefer conversations with self-selected other activists, so I would be sceptical turnout motivation is going to happen in any big way. Thus the debate will continue to stick around those who do vote: http://www.comres.co.uk/polls/daily-mail-political-poll-4th-june-2015/

  4. Matty on said:

    Charlie Mansell: from what I see the activists tend to prefer conversations with self-selected other activists,

    Yes, I think that tends to be right especially as you further to the left. Lots of talk of revolution but little attempt to reach out to the masses. In many CLP’s (especially marginal seats) they seem to do canvassing every weekend but the weakness of the Labour message hinders things.

  5. Matty on said:

    A bit more on turnout.
    Colombian Presidential Election, 2014 : 1st round turnout 40.07% 2nd round turnout 47.89%

    Venezuelan presidential election, 2013: Turnout 79.68%

    Ecuadorian general election, 2013: Turnout 81.09%

    Seems to be that where the left is credible and popular and inequality gets tackled that the turnout gets a big boost.

  6. In response to Charlie’s point about pre-2010 Labour voters supporting UKIP, that is undoubtedly the case. So there are no grounds to “assume that UKIP votes are essentially Tory for all the 1997 to 2010 period”.

    Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon have done some useful work on this, showing that while relatively few of 2010 Labour voters subsequently turned to UKIP, a much higher percentage who had voted Labour back in 2005 did so. Unlike Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, however, Evans and Mellon didn’t combine that with overheated claims about the threat UKIP posed to Labour in 2015. Their arguments are summarised here.

    (Evans and Mellon also challenge Ford and Goodwin’s “Britain’s most working-class party” line on UKIP, pointing out that 21% of voters in the C2 NRS social grade who Ford and Goodwin categorise as working class are in fact self-employed, and therefore part of the petty bourgeoisie that have traditionally been hardline Tory voters and also form a natural base of support for “radical right-wing parties”.)

    I think it would be a mistake to assume that all UKIP voters are just part of a right-wing majority among the UK electorate. This assumption is undermined by the fact that UKIP supporters are strongly in favour of nationalisation of the rail and energy companies. It might be more effective (and certainly more principled) if the Labour Party adopted policies that addressed these concerns of UKIP voters, rather than by trying to appear tough on immigration.

    Charlie’s claim that “up to 58% of the 2015 vote was cast for clearly pro-austerity parties” ignores the fact that a further 30.4% voted for another pro-austerity party, namely Labour. Leaving aside the ultra-left groupuscules, the only UK-wide party standing on an anti-austerity platform was the Greens.

    Labour’s campaign failed to challenge the economic illiteracy of deficit fetishism and promised further spending cuts, albeit at a slower pace than the Tories. This cautious and conservative approach led to the ludicrous situation where the Tories promised an extra £8 billion for the NHS and Labour was reduced to attacking them for fiscal irresponsibility.

    It has been suggested that this lack of a clear alternative to austerity had a seriously damaging impact on Labour’s electoral support: “Labour established a commanding poll lead over the Tories by May 2012. That lead eroded rapidly when it shifted to an explicitly austerity-lite agenda. Although Labour announced it would make modest reforms such as abolish the bedroom tax and freeze energy prices for a period, it stuck with the austerity framework set by the Coalition.”

    It may also explain why almost a quarter of respondents who told pollsters they would vote Labour failed to do so on election day.

    In light of this, Labour would be better advised to develop a programme that motivates and mobilises its own potential supporters, rather than concentrating on chasing after Tory voters as the Fabian Society proposes. Bear in mind that this is the same Fabian Society that produced a report, with Robert Ford’s assistance, that presented a ridiculously exaggerated picture of the electoral threat UKIP posed to Labour.

    In both cases a false analysis is employed to justify a shift by Labour to the right.