Book Review: Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Farage ukip - Some rights reserved by Astral MediaOne of the political debates over UKIP is the question of whether it is primarily taking its support from disgruntled Conservatives or not.

Leading the charge for the ‘yes’ camp are several recent large-scale polls (or conglomeration of separate polls) from reputable polling companies. Looking at how people who currently say they’ll vote UKIP behaved in 2010, the pattern seems clear: UKIP’s growth in support predominantly comes from ex-Tories.

However, the ‘no’ camp has its persuasive case, complete with polling too. It’s best put by the excellent new book, Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin.

Using an all too rare combination of interviews and equations, mixing face-to-face research with number crunching of large datasets, Ford and Goodwin argue that UKIP’s support comes predominantly from a white working class vote which feels it has been left behind by social changes and neglected by all the mainstream parties. Older, less skilled, less educated and uncomfortable with the way in which British society is changing – that’s the core of the UKIP appeal, they argue, and what gives UKIP’s support a distinct base which isn’t just about Euro-scepticism:

“Far from being ‘the Conservative party in exile’, UKIP attracts voters from the opposite side of the traditional class divide to the Conservatives … their base is more working class than that of any of the main parties”.

The two contrasting views on the sources of UKIP support are not quite fully opposed to each other, for it’s possible to imagine the sort of working class voter who the Conservatives used to aspire to represent, especially in the days of Enoch Powell or Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps swinging back to Labour off the back of the Poll Tax, the early ’90s recession or Tory sleaze, they may then in turn have voted Tory again in 2010 in reaction to recession and Gordon Brown. Technically ex-Tory (score one for the yes camp), they are also the sort of voter Labour used to appeal to (score one for the no camp).

Moreover, the Ford/Goodwin argument sees different sources of support for UKIP at different points in its history: “The Conservative Party are always a big source of UKIP recruits, but they are not consistently the main source, in fact there is clear evidence that UKIP mobilizes discontent with whichever party is in charge. The party won many recruits from Labour during the Blair and Brown governments, indeed more UKIP voters in this period came from Labour than from the Conservatives … UKIP’s success in mobilising discontent with the government may come at the expense of the main opposition party.” Indeed that’s what happened in the 2013 local elections.

Why all this matters is that one theory suggests the Conservatives will be hit by any UKIP surge in the ballot boxes. But the other theory suggests that Labour could be hit worst, especially where it is the incumbent in local government and particularly on the national level after 2015 if Labour returns to power. Indeed, of the 15 most likely prospects for UKIP’s first Parliamentary seat selected in the book, 12 are held by Labour.

For those interested in the Liberal Democrats, there’s another interesting implication of the book’s thesis. If UKIP is going to prosper as the party for those who don’t like the way British society is moving – those who are instinctively inward looking and resistant to change – then it suggests a political spectrum with UKIP at one end and the Liberal Democrats at the other. Drawbridge up versus drawbridge down, if you will. Is British politics really going to revolve around that axis, though? In some form it’s been the dream of many Lib Dem strategists for many years, but it’s not happened yet as other issues – especially the economy more generally – intrude to disrupt that becoming the way in which voters think about politics. That disruption may too happen to UKIP yet, making its ability to appeal to a core vote of those who feel left behind not the fulcrum on which it can overturn the party political system but rather a curiosity that comes and goes.

Speaking of curiosities that came and went… looking back at some of the books written during the SDP’s rise, subsequent events were often not kind to the predictions and explanations proffered in them. By producing their book now, Ford and Goodwin risk a similar fate – but they have also gifted us a useful guide to trying to understand events. If you want to understand UKIP and hazard your own predictions for its future, read this book.

Note: a free review copy of Revolt on the Right was sent to me.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Astral Media

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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5 Comments

  • This is an interesting review by Mark Pack discussing something which is very much an issue of the moment.
    I hope I will be allowed to comment on the review without a pack of Jeremy Browne’s ardent fan boys leaping on me and bleating that I have not read the actual book from cover to cover.

    In the media discussion around where the UKIP vote comes there is often an assumption that if the vote is working class it must have been Labour. Yet the Conservatives have always had a level of support amongst the working class going back to Disraeli. In some parts of the country the Conservatives drew support from an anti-Irish element in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Whipping up fear about foreigners taking jobs is not a UKIP invention of the last four years.

    I would add to Mark’s theories about why all this matters.
    There are some on the left (Liberal, Labour and beyond) who complacently think that UKIP will help them out by splitting the Tory vote. I think this is a dangerous illusion. Some on the left in France used to think the same about the Le Pen phenomenon and look what has happened now.
    But there is also the anti-establishment vote which Liberal Democrat community politicians were ideally placed to work with. If you had a grumble about the council, the government or the bankers and you trusted the local Liberal
    Democrats it was a good starting point to consider voting for the Liberal Democrats in a general election. Now that trust and link with a significant group of middle and working class voters has been broken by the class of lobbyist politician who have joined the Liberal Democrats in the last 15 years whilst the going was good. These lobbyist liberalDemocrat MPs think like, look like and misbehave like all the other lobbyist politicians amongst the Blairites and Thatcherites in the other parties. They have alienated two thirds of our 1997-2010 supporters.

    If you are a voter alienated from the political lobbyist class why not give the UKIP nutters a go ? The lobbyist class keep attacking the UKIP blokes for seeming ordinary and outside the system: so UKIP consequently laugh all the way to the pub and back because they know that the more they are attacked for being outsiders, the firmer their support becomes.

    Hence the results of the Clegg / Farage debacle. Clegg is the epitome of the type the alienated voter hates. He is posh, privileged and talks like a toff, looks like a toff and acts like a toff; But what is worse he promised before the last General Election that he was something different and would sweep aside the establishment.

    And he became Deputy Prime Minsiter and had the specific task in government of changing it all and getting shot of The Lords, ending expenses fiddles etc etc. And when he became Deputy Prime Minister what did he do? He talked like a toff, looked like a toff and acted like a toff. The House of Lords, the voting system, the people at the top are all still there, just as they were, untouched. So if Clegg is the just the same as Cameron and Miliband, why not give UKIP a go?

    Mark ends with a reminder of some of the predictions that were floated at the time of the SDP, thirty years ago. He is right to do so. The SDP also grew rapidly out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many voters wanted to “break the mould” and hitched up to the SDP bandwagon. How disillusioned must they be now, thirty years later and the mould still not broken?

  • I suspect Ford & Goodwin are much closer to reality than most, and I haven’t even read the book. In fact you frankly don’t need to read the book. Here is the answer :
    Ukip have listened to what voters want ~ and are at 27% poll rating.
    LibDems have treated voters with utter contempt ~ and are at 8% poll rating.
    Spot the subtle difference there? Might I humbly suggest, that the solution to your woes might be mind numbingly simple ~ ?
    (……. Listen to what voters want, and stop treating them with contempt…….)

  • I once went to a US campaigning training lecture by Rick Ridder (former manager for Gary Hart before he was spotted on a yacht with a blonde). It was on a Sunday afternoon in Blackpool and he said we were very odd people to do this. We were and are. He went on to say that the vast majority of voters don’t really think about politics until about 4 weeks before an election. The UKIP case is being made during a depressed economy supported by 24 hour media and the right wing press. Someone must be to blame for the depressed economy and it is ‘the political class’, immigrants and EU. This scapegoating politics is not new and very easy to absorb without much thought.

  • Jayne Mansfield 26th Apr '14 - 4:40pm

    @ John Dunn,
    If UKIP have listened to the voters and are 27% in the polls.
    If the Lib Dems have treated the voters with contempt and are at 8% in the polls.
    How have Labour treated the voters to be at 30%?

    What seems mind numbingly simple to UKIPPers like yourself seems rather more complex to me.

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