In Depth

Ed Miliband for PM: is that what Farage really wants?

Unless there is a flood of Tory defectors to Ukip, Nigel Farage’s best hope is the long game

Columnist Don Brind

Nigel Farage is entitled to dream after coming within 617 votes of getting a second Ukip MP elected to Westminster. After Thursday’s spectacular victory in Clacton and the near-miss in Heywood and Middleton he is odds-on to double his parliamentary strength when the Tories summon the nerve to call the Rochester and Strood by-election some time next month.

Farage will have got particular pleasure from Heywood and Middleton where he confounded the pollsters. They had pointed to Labour holding the seat comfortably, with Survation suggesting a ten per cent increase in Labour’s vote compared with 2010. Farage insisted it would be closer than that - and he was right.

So, how far can Farage take Ukip now? 

In the excitement of Friday morning, a beaming Ukip MEP, Diane James, sitting on Andrew Neil’s BBC sofa, said she thought they might win 20 to 25 seats in the May 2015 general election. She said they would come pretty equally from Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. 

Farage himself has been more circumspect – or at least he was before the by-election results. As the Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday, the Ukip leader believes he is on track to win eight seats.

The hit list, based on constituency polling paid for by Ukip donor Alan Bown and the mega marginal polling by Lord Ashcroft, includes four Tory-held seats - Boston & Skegness, North Thanet, South Thanet (where Farage himself is the candidate) and Clacton. Rochester and Strood – caused by the defection to Ukip of Tory Mark Reckless - would be a bonus if he wins next month and holds onto the seat in May. 

Then there are three Labour seats – Thurrock, Great Grimsby and Rotherham – and one Lib Dem seat, Eastleigh, where they came second in the February 2013 by-election but now feel they have the beating of Nick Clegg’s battered troops.

But can they do better than that? This is the question that will occupy commentators’ minds over the coming weeks and months, especially if Ukip do win Rochester and Strood.

As Patrick Wintour of The Guardian asked yesterday, can “the creaking Westminster political system… respond to the contempt in which it is held?”

All three party leaders – Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – had tried in their conference addresses to empathise with voters who feel a disconnect between their concerns/experiences and what comes out of the mouths of Westminster politicians. 

Yet the by-election results showed no respite, wrote Wintour. “No message, scripted or memorised, from any podium over the past three weeks has done anything to quell the revolt.”

He’s right – but I would argue that it’s still a long stretch to believe that a couple of Tory deserters can start an avalanche of support that will give Ukip real power in the Commons.

Bear in mind – though this received little coverage - that on the same day as the headline-grabbing Westminster by-elections, Ukip was seeking to defend three local council seats in by-elections in Crawley, Rushmoor and Essex County: they managed to keep one, but lost one each to the Tories and Labour. It doesn’t all go their way.

So, four questions:

What happens when the turnout is higher? 

Ukip’s secret ally until now has been the Sofa Party, the stay-at-home voters. The non-voters in Thursday’s Heywood and Middleton by-election outnumbered voters by nearly 2-1 because the turnout was a lowly 35 per cent compared to 57 per cent at the 2010 general election. The Clacton by-election turnout was down 13 per cent on the general election despite all the excitement at Douglas Carswell’s defection.

Low turnout was the key to Ukip’s triumph in the European elections in May. As YouGov president Peter Kellner pointed out at the time, only one in three electors bothered to vote, allowing Ukip to top the poll with the positive votes of only nine per cent of electors.  

At a general election, the average turnout – unless the doomsayers are correct and the British public is ready to give all sitting politicians a black eye - is more likely to be in the region of 65-70 per cent. 

The higher the turnout, the less chance Ukip have of making an impact. Which suggests Ukip will be lucky to win eight or nine seats in May. 

What about tactical voting against Ukip?

While Ukip are on a roll, it is easy to forget how many people dislike the party’s policies and what The Mole described yesterday as Farage’s “beer-swilling pub philosophy”. 

In May, a YouGov survey found the number of people with positive feelings about Ukip had dropped from 28 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent while those with negative feelings had risen from 37 to 53 per cent over the same period.

As Peter Kellner wrote in the light of the party’s European victory: “Overall, Ukip has not so much won new friends as polarised public opinion.”

And that polarisation means there are people capable of being mobilised by Farage’s rivals – depending on local circumstances – to vote tactically to stop Ukip.

What about the Lib Dem experience?

Nigel Farage claims Ukip have a realistic chance of holding the balance of power if the coming general election results in a hung parliament. 

A hung parliament is a possibility. That indeed is what would happen if the general election replicated the two per cent lead for the Tories in a YouGov voting intention poll earlier this week.  

By yesterday morning, however, that had switched back to a Labour lead of five per cent – ensuring a Labour majority of about 60 – so the Tories need to claw back that poll lead - and fast.

Even if there is a hung parliament, it is unlikely a band of nine Ukip MPs could carry much weight. The 650-seat House of Commons is currently made up of 303 Conservatives, 257 Labour, 56 Lib Dems and 34 others – including Scottish and Welsh nationalists, one Green and now, of course, one Ukip member. 

The Lib Dems were able to become partners in a stable coalition because they had more than 50 MPs.

Even if they lose half of those in May – as recent polling suggests – they could still be in a position to form a coalition with either the Tories or Labour (though, increasingly, one gets the impression that both Cameron and Miliband might prefer to attempt minority government than do a deal with the Lib Dems).

And here’s another thing: it took the Lib Dems five elections of targeting seats they could win, building their corps of MPs to 50-plus, before they were in a position to form a coalition.

To achieve that any faster would require a flood of Tory defectors to Ukip this winter.

Or does Farage simply want the Tories to lose?

This is what many observers feel is Farage’s real ambition: Take enough Tory votes to let Ed Miliband and Labour win the election. Give the Left five years to prove they cannot run the economy while the Right falls out and then regroups.  

“He [Farage] wants the Tories to lose, tear themselves apart as the different wings blame each other for defeat, and then split over the best way forward,” YouGov’s Peter Kellner wrote in the aftermath of Douglas Carswell’s defection.

“Farage would be waiting in the wings, offering to join forces with Conservative Eurosceptics – so that, before long, he could take them over.”

And you thought the Ukip leader was not as devious/cunning/cynical as other mainstream politicians?

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