Just under a year ago I published a blog taking a retrospective look at the 2014 European Parliament and local elections to consider what UKIP’s 2014 successes might mean for the Party’s General Election chances. That blog and another since highlighted the fact that while UKIP’s recent history has been characterised by relatively successful European elections followed by poor general election performances, signs were pointing to a slightly different outcome this time. Indeed, most political commentators were unsurprised by the 10-point boost to UKIP’s vote share relative to 2010, and perhaps as testament to the curiosities of a FPTP system, equally unsurprised by the lack of seats this translated to.
Despite winning only a single seat in May, UKIP hailed the General Election as a step in the right direction, citing it as evidence that their “2020 strategy” – building a platform of support to challenge in the next General Election – is on track. Besides the almost 3.9 million votes cast for UKIP, one of the main justifications for this optimism was the number of seats in which the UKIP candidate came second. While in 2010 the party registered zero second place finishes, in 2015 they achieved 120 – almost twice the number managed by the Liberal Democrats and two-thirds that of the Conservatives. But does this really point towards more seats in 2020? A closer look at this subset of seats and the way in which those second place finishes were secured could help answer this question.
Majorities provide a good indication of how closely run a race is in a given constituency. From the 34,655 margin of victory secured by the Labour candidate in Knowsley to the 27 vote difference favouring the Conservative candidate in Gower, the level of competitiveness is not uniform across all seats. So in constituencies where UKIP came second, how close were they to actually winning? The chart below suggests that, on the most part, they were some way behind. It ranks the majorities in seats where UKIP came second from the smallest on the left (the closest run battle) to the largest on the right (the most distant). The vertical red line signifies the point of the average majority (about 11,480 votes) in all seats across the UK, and the fact that the vast majority of the seats in which UKIP came second (100 of the 120) lie to the right of this line reflects that UKIP were a fairly distant second in most cases.
It is absolutely true that, regardless of how distant their runners-up were, progress from 0 second places to 120 in the space of a single Parliament represents a significant step for UKIP. But these sizeable majorities warrant a closer look at these seats and raise the question of whether expectations of similar levels of progress by 2020 are realistic.
UKIP second places by region and first-placed party
The maps below reveal something interesting about UKIP progress in one particular region. While the winners map for the South East may not have changed drastically relative to 2010 (72 of the 83 seats were held by the Conservatives) the same is not true of the second place map. UKIP finished second in a high proportion of seats (around 40% compared with 18% nationally) in 2015, yet perhaps even more interestingly, in 28 of these 33 seats it was the Liberal Democrat candidate that came second in 2010. The maps clearly show that in large sections of the region, UKIP have replaced the Liberal Democrats as the second-placed party in the South East.
Second place finishes in 2010… … and in 2015
Does it follow that these 2010 Liberal Democrat voters switched to UKIP? According to data from the latest round of the British Election Study’s internet survey panel, this is unlikely to be the case. Of those voters who claimed to have voted Lib Dem in 2010 but would not be voting for the party again in 2015, only 11% said that they would be switching their vote to UKIP compared with around 20% to the Conservatives and 37% to Labour.
How might this explain what was observed in the South East? The chart below shows an apparent association between the degree of the Liberal Democrat loss of vote share in constituencies in the South East and the Conservative majority. Each dot represents one of the 72 constituencies where the Conservatives held the seat, and shows a clear negative relationship between the Liberal Democrat loss of votes and the increase in the Conservative majority. This suggests that not only were the Lib Dems second in many seats in the South East in 2010, but also that they were a much closer second.
How exactly does this relate to UKIP? Well it may suggest that the same phenomenon that allowed UKIP to come second in so many seats – Lib Dem losses– may also have contributed to the party not winning more of them. The sizeable drop in the Lib Dem vote share may have bumped the UKIP candidates up a place, but it also may have reinforced the Conservative majority so that they were barely closer to winning those seats. Indeed, the average majority in Conservative seats increased by 37% across the country and 46% in the South East.
The dynamics of this apparent relationship are difficult to determine. Whether it was the result of the direct movement of voters (from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives), indirect movement (from the Lib Dems to UKIP / Labour who started from a relatively low base), or quite possibly a combination of the two. The release of British Election Study data in the coming months will tell us more about voter migration and reveal more about UKIP’s true current standing. Yet one thing is for sure, the Lib Dems cannot repeat the same loss of vote share in 2020 and to be successful, UKIP‘s 2020 strategy will have to rely on gaining much more ground on the Labour and Conservative Parties as well.