by Peter Watt
There is one aspect of the UKIP Rotherham storm that I have found intriguing and that has, for the most part, passed largely without comment: the foster carers who were at the heart of the story were former Labour voters.
And yet this on the face of it belies the presumption that UKIP is a problem for the Tories. Psephologically speaking of course, it does seem that for the time being at least UKIP has taken voters from the Tories.
It is why Michael Fabricant MP said the unsayable this week by talking of Conservative electoral pacts with UKIP. But psephology alone is surely only half the story because scratch the surface of the assumptions about UKIP and there are some others bout who votes UKIP and why.
One of the main issues is that those of us who suffer from an obsession with politics still tend to see politics on a linear ‘left-right’ spectrum. This means that we could sit in a bar and quite quickly group policies as “left” or “right” with a high degree of consensus amongst ourselves.
So broadly, parties on the left are in favour of bigger government and those on the right smaller government. Parties on the left are in favour of the state directly delivering help to the poor and those on the right are more supportive of community and self-help options. And so on; and depending which party you are from would depend as to whether the broadly left approach or broadly right approach was seen as a positive or not.
Even though in reality we know that it isn’t in fact this simple, it is a stereotype that we instinctively feel is broadly right. And we think this because it complies with our worldview as Labour activists. And the same would be true for political activists generally.
It means that we can therefore all understand that a right wing Tory voter might be persuaded to vote for UKIP. After all, they are tougher on immigration and Europe than the Tories, both of which are classic right wing issues. On this basis UKIP is clearly on the right and also to the right of the Tories. Labour would see this as proof positive of all that is bad about the “nasty Tories”, Whilst Tories would see this as a failure of their leadership to be sufficiently Tory and of the liberal left allowing uncontrolled immigration and surrendering national powers to Europe.
In other words, on the basis of our views of the political spectrum we ascribe an assumed series of world views to those who vote for the respective parties. So those who vote Labour are more socially liberal, worry less about crime and so on. Whilst those who vote Tory are more disciplinarian and think that we should be tougher on welfare claimants. It is how the political game is played isn’t it?
But it is lazy and very often wrong. It means that we make some dangerous assumptions that make us feel better but not necessarily voters. For instance, anecdotally many of us will have stories of lifelong Labour voters that we have met on the doorstep that have expressed some pretty strong views about “foreigners” that have made us wince.
I remember meeting a Labour councillor who was working on a by-election a few years ago who spent an hour telling me about how all the jobs locally had gone to the Pakis who didn’t have the same standards as us whites. So racism certainly isn’t confined to the ranks of other parties!
Lord Ashcroft recently published another in his series of fascinating polls looking at the views of voters to the main parties. In “Project Red Alert’” he looks at Labour. It is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. Essentially he looks at Labour voters as:
- “Loyalists” who represent 25% of all voter. They voted Labour in 20120 and will do so in 2015;
- “Joiners” who represent 17% of all voters. They are currently Labour but who didn’t vote Labour in 2010;
- “Considerers” who represent 10% of all voters. They are not currently Labour but say that they could be persuaded.
One of the really fascinating insights is the extent to which voters see certain issues. When asked which party would have the best approach to “ensuring that people are treated fairly”, 92% of loyalists said Labour and only 2% said Conservatives. No surprise there.
But when asked about “reforming welfare to stop scroungers and cut dependency” 34% of Loyalists say that the Conservatives have the best approach. What about “controlling Immigration?” Well 26% of loyalists again say the Conservatives. “Dealing with Crime,” its 16% and “defending Britain’s interests in Europe” its 19%.
Incidentally, on “cutting the deficit and the debt” 26% of Labour loyalists say the Conservatives have the best approach!
So on some issues, voters do not seem to be complying with our world view of how politics is played out. On the contrary, significant numbers of Labour voters, loyal Labour voters no less, perceive that the Tories have the best approach on immigration, welfare reform, crime and Europe. And what is more, the figures go up for joiners and considerers. So for instance, 33% of joiners think that the Conservatives have the best approach on immigration as do 44% of considerers.
So the assumption that UKIP is just a threat to the Tories is dangerous and the fact that the Rotherham foster-carers were former Labour voters is not really a surprise.
The quicker we wake up to the fact that most voters are not like people who attend Labour party meetings the better. Some of them even read the Daily Mail.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party