Nigel Farage hit the campaign trail yesterday travelling up the M1 from South Thanet to Hartlepool, to deliver a message to UKIP supporters and undecided voters in the North East – ‘Labour has failed you’.
After UKIP’s unexpected performance in the Heywood and Middleton by-election last autumn, falling short to Labour by only 617 votes, the party quickly set its sight on launching an offensive deep into the Labour heart lands at the general election, dispelling the perception UKIP was a party of old and former Conservative voters.
What has been noticeable during this campaign from UKIP, however, is how little attention Nigel Farage has given the issue. Starting UKIP’s campaign off with a speech on the economy in Manchester, Farage quickly ended up spending more and more time in his own constituency fight in South Thanet, after polls indicated he could lose the seat.
By spending more time in South Thanet, Farage has been prevented from carrying out a tour of the North of England, aimed at disillusioned Labour and Conservative voters. The hard truth of electoral reality suggests UKIP will only win a few seats at most, and none of these will come in the North. Not in this election anyway.
Writing in the Daily Mail yesterday ahead of his campaign appearance in Hartlepool, Farage set out in no uncertain terms what UKIP’s aim is: to become the main challenger to Labour in areas of traditionally working class voters.
Labour, according to Farage, no longer represents the values or beliefs and opinions of “ordinary folk”. On immigration, Farage said Labour had “betrayed their core voters” by failing to address the scale of immigration.
The pitch made by Farage is clear. UKIP thinks, and polling suggests, that there is a sizeable amount of traditional Labour voters who feel they are part of the left behind generation, hit hard by the forces of globalisation.
One of the most striking examples highlighting the surge in UKIP support in previously untapped areas comes in Burnley, where a Lord Ashcroft poll at the end of 2014 showed UKIP support at 25 per cent, in second place behind Labour. To illustrate the shift underway here consider the fact UKIP received only 2 per cent of the vote in Burnley at the 2010 election, coming in sixth place, and it was the Liberal Democrats who actually won the seat.
If UKIP finish second in Burnley, it would represent an interesting shift in electoral politics that the University of Manchester’s Robert Ford thinks could result in UKIP finishing in second place in anywhere between 70-100 seats.
How so? Looking at Burnley again helps us answer that. UKIP has hovered up protest votes at the expense of other parties, including the incumbent Lib Dems. In doing so, UKIP aims to position itself as the main challenger to Labour, or so the party hopes, hence the appeal to potential soft Labour voters.
As well cited, the scale of the Labour collapse in Scotland will be one of the defining takeaways on 8 May. But the rise of UKIP in the North also merits attention, in particular how many second places the party can score, where UKIP draws its new support from, and what size majorities Labour enjoys. These factors will be critical in thinking about how both Labour and UKIP contest the general election after this one.
The Conservative Party has already begun its response to the rise of UKIP in the North through the Northern Powerhouse agenda. If UKIP manages to push the Conservatives into a sizeable number of third places in the North, questions around the party’s perception problem in the region will come to attention once more. The problem with the Northern Powerhouse is that it should have been a priority from day one in 2010, not the summer before an election.
At least the Conservative Party can point to the Northern Powerhouse in how it is trying to re-connect with voters in the North. It is less clear at present what Labour’s strategy on this point is. Labour faces huge losses in Scotland partly because voters were taken for granted over many years. UKIP sniffs a similar opportunity south of the Scottish border. Whatever the political landscape looks like on 8 May, the Labour Party needs a strategy and plan of action to address this medium-term UKIP threat.