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The persistence of kippers – looking at where post-referendum UKIP is now

March 13th, 2017

Most polls still have the purples in double figures

They are routinely derided by others.  The press loves to print stories of their wackier examples.  They are marginalised.  Their public figures are held up to ridicule.  Yet they make up roughly one in ten of the adult population.  I write, of course, of UKIP supporters.

Who are these people?  Where do they come from?  And why, eight months after Leave won the referendum and with the vote being implemented in a hardline version by a Conservative government, do they continue to see a need for a purple perspective?

On the face of it, UKIP’s purpose is complete.  It was established to get Britain out of the EU, and that is now in train.  It campaigned arguing that restricting immigration should be the priority, and the Government is now making that its touchstone for Brexit.  Nigel Farage himself has said that “I can hardly believe that the PM is now using the phrases and words that I’ve been mocked for using for years. Real progress.”

Nor can it be said that UKIP benefits from impressive leadership.  Since the referendum it has tripped over its own shoelaces repeatedly.  It has crammed in two leadership elections, with Diane James managing just 18 days in the role, probably the shortest tenure ever of a permanent leader of a political party with Parliamentary representation since universal suffrage and only twice as long in the top spot as Lady Jane Grey managed.

Her longer term replacement Paul Nuttall has already been turned into a figure of fun among those politically unsympathetic to UKIP with his apparently loose relationship with the truth. The first of these leadership elections included a fistfight at an MEP meeting that hospitalised one of the candidates.  The second leadership election threw up a candidate who claimed that a gay donkey tried to rape his horse and who owned a fortified compound in Bulgaria: he got 18% of the vote.  Meanwhile, UKIP’s chief funder is threatening to stand against UKIP’s only MP.  Without Nigel Farage, UKIP’s representatives look a complete shower.

Yet despite all this, UKIP remains surprisingly strong in the polls.  With the exception of Ipsos MORI, every opinion pollster has found that it continues to record at least 10% poll shares since the referendum result.  So it must have some continuing appeal that the other parties cannot meet. Let’s look further.

Drawing conclusions from the cross-breaks of opinion polls is always fraught with danger, particularly when dealing with small samples.  This risk can be reduced, though not eliminated, by looking at different opinion polls.  So I have looked at the tables of the latest polls from each of ICM, YouGov and ComRes.  The broad picture that they paint is sufficiently similar to give some confidence.

All three pollsters find that the great bulk of UKIP’s current support comes from their 2015 voters.  UKIP has, it seems, succeeded in hanging onto the largest part of those voters – all three pollsters find that it is retaining roughly two thirds of its 2015 vote, give or take a few percent.  To put that into perspective, the Lib Dems had lost two thirds of their vote in 2015 and have actually retained fewer supporters from that date to now.  The kippers seem to have built a brand to last, at least with some voters.

All three pollsters also find that UKIP is attracting a reasonable number of new supporters.  All three find that between a fifth and a quarter of current UKIP supporters voted for a different party in 2015.  Now this is not one way traffic.  All three pollsters find that far more 2015 UKIP voters have headed for the Conservative party than vice versa, and, contrary to received wisdom, the net flow of voters between Labour and UKIP only is only a trickle rather than a flood.  Nevertheless, this is not the polling of a party yet in terminal decline.

So what’s driving this?  YouGov and ICM both found that roughly a fifth of Leave voters are planning to vote UKIP.  (ComRes, oddly, do not look at their respondents through the prism of the referendum vote.)  Indeed, YouGov didn’t find any Remain supporters at all who were backing UKIP.  Essentially, it seems, that UKIP have become a party for Leave supporters who don’t trust the Government to follow it through.

Viewed in that light, I have two observations.  First, the continuing lack of trust of many Leave voters in the current Government is striking.  Even UKIP’s most loyal supporters would be pushed to suggest that it has given a good account of itself in recent months, yet despite UKIP’s very public shambles it still represents a more attractive proposition for a fifth of Leave voters than a Government that is pushing through a hardline Brexit with reasonable efficiency.  This suggests that Theresa May is right to worry about her right flank.  If Brexit softens or flounders, UKIP could revive in the polls sharply as the May violets that she has currently won over might return home again.

Secondly, if a hard Brexit is seen to be implemented, that’s a large cache of votes that the Conservatives might be able to draw upon, even if they lose votes on their Remain flank.  There’s no particular reason to assume that the Conservative vote share in the polls has yet peaked.

Alastair Meeks