The real threat to Labour in the North is not Ukip; it’s the Conservative Party

The universal agreement that Copeland was a huge win for the Conservatives and a disaster for Labour ensured the focus of debate was mainly on the significance of the result in Stoke. Ross Clark disagrees with the emerging consensus that Ukip are finished, citing their robust vote share (which increased in Stoke from 22.7 per cent to 24.7 per cent) despite their raison d’être being achieved in the vote for Brexit.

I this Ross is missing the point. Since their victory in the 2014 Euro elections we have awaited the much-discussed great electoral surge of the purple populist movement; it has disappointed every time. Ukip are always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It might have been a decent second place but it’s still yet another electoral failure, and not an honourable one either; the campaign was pathetically shambolic.

The Ukip leader and three-time Olympic gold winner Paul Nuttall has been exposed as a serial liar. His biggest policy announcement was the embarrassing sloganeering nonsense to make the “traditional British dinner of fish and chips cheap as chips again”; a true dad’s army policy that patronises the working class.

Nuttall accepted no responsibility for his duplicity and instead threw one of his loyal aides under the bus before bemoaning a “coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign” and crying on the podium at Ukip’s spring conference last weekend… this is one of Ukip’s big hitters and we’re supposed to believe they’re not finished?

This by-election was heralded as a precursor to the great Ukip blitzkrieg on Northern England. Stoke isn’t in the North, but they were considered honorary Northerners because of the post-industrial vibe and the 69.4% vote for Brexit. Well, the people of Stoke were canny enough to spot a hapless charlatan who offered them little and duly withheld their votes.

Therein lies the real lesson of the week. Ukip is not a serious party. They don’t have the professionalism, resources, candidates or the ground operation to launch that all-out assault of the North that Nuttall is apparently aiming for.  So perhaps while we were getting distracted by the Stoke result we should have been looking to the collapse in the Ukip vote share in Copeland, which fell from 15.5 per cent in 2015 to a mere 6.5 percent, with the Conservatives being the main benefactor.

Received wisdom has long dictated that the Conservative Party is dead in the North. Although it’s still very much the case that many Northerners would rather flambé their grandmother than vote Tory, and many constituencies will never turn blue even if the Labour candidate beheads puppies in the town hall, the Conservatives should still be taken very seriously as an electoral force.

The tribal voting instinct is strong but not unbreakable; and the loathsome socialist Jeremy Corbyn is just the man to facilitate that. According to a Yougov poll commissioned by the Times, Labour polls at 31% in the North and the Conservatives beat them by 5 points at 36%, with Ukip on 19%. The real threat to Labour is not Ukip, but a resurgent Tory Party.

Looking back at the Tory performance at the 2015 General Election provides some intriguing data.  In the North-East, the party increased its vote share in almost 60% of seats. In the North-West the party finished in first or second place in more than 80% of seats. In Yorkshire and Humberside it won 19 seats (35.8%).

Clearly, that the much ballyhooed rise of Ukip in Northern England has not significantly harmed the Tories. Labour remains dominant, but they are in very serious trouble and a significant number of Northern voters are attracted to the Conservative Party. Theresa May has banished the posh boy image of the Cameroons and can detoxify her Party. She polls over sixty points ahead of Corbyn in favourability ratings and is perceived to be in touch with ordinary people. We should expect more political upsets in Northern constituencies.

To achieve that aim, the Conservatives just need to make the North feels like it matters. That’s why George Osborne championed the “Northern powerhouse”. Northerners are the same as any other voters; they want jobs, opportunity and investment in their area. Deliver that and it will pay off in droves.


Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Director of Online Communications.  Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

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Photo by David Wilson Clarke  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license