Issues & Ideas | 28th April 2015

Ukip is being shafted by the electoral system – and its poor ground game

It will take 20,000 votes to elect an SNP MP, but a million to elect every Ukip MP.

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It has been an odd general election campaign for Ukip. The media has rather lost interest in the party, giving the impression they are fading from view. But a glance at the national polls suggests otherwise: Ukip’s polling average is still 13.7 per cent, 5 per cent clear of the Lib Dems (according to May2015). The much-promised Ukip squeeze stubbornly refuses to happen.

But here’s the thing: the remorseless logic of Britain’s electoral system is to treat national vote share as an irrelevance. While Ukip is well on course to treble the one million votes it got in 2010, this will count for little unless those votes are distributed efficiently across seats. And right now they are distributed about as inefficiently as can be: the signs are that Ukip will need one million votes for every MP they elect.

Ukip has made great play of carefully targeting seats where it will pump its resources into, choosing these on the basis of demographics, local circumstances and the popularity of incumbent MPs. But the evidence from Ashcroft’s latest polling of marginal constituencies is that isn’t working very well.

Evidence from Ashcroft’s latest polling of marginals is that Ukip’s targetting isn’t working.

In Revolt on the Right, the book that has become the set text on Ukip, Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin suggest that Great Grimsby is the single seat most favourable to Ukip in the entire country. Ukip members have never been shy of talking up their prospects in the seat either, sensing that victory in one of Labour’s northern heartlands would, once and for all, dismantle the myth of the party being the Tories in exile. Money and personnel have been poured into the seat. (And James Meek even visited for this month’s LRB.)

It’s not working. Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling of the seat puts Ukip on a meagre 25 per cent, trailing former Ed Miliband staffer Melanie Onn by 17 points. Results in three other seats that Ukip has designs on winning – Cannock Chase, Castle Point and Great Yarmouth – are little better; only in Castle Point, where it trails by 5 per cent, is Ukip within single digits of the leading party.

So something is going wrong for Ukip. Rob Ford blames a combination of “poor local campaigns, strong local campaigns from Labour and the Conservatives, and a weak national Ukip campaign, where missteps and controversial statements have damaged Ukip’s image with moderate voters,” noting an increase in the percentage of the electorate who regard Ukip as representing an “extreme” position.

Then there is what Americans call the ground game.

Then there is what Americans call the ground game: the science of methodically identifying who your supporters are, persuading undecideds, and dragging them to the ballot box.

In two of the four seats Ashcroft polled more voters have been contacted by both the Conservatives and Labour than Ukip; in Great Grimsby, Labour has contacted 14 per cent more voters. It is no coincidence that Ukip’s best performance in these polls is where its ground game is best: in Castle Point Ukip has contacted 10 per cent more voters than the Conservatives here and 19 per cent more than Labour.

In Thanet South, Nigel Farage is benefiting from meticulous ward-by-ward canvassing from Ukip activists flooding the seat. While it looks to be working, the battle for Thanet South could be detracting from Ukip’s other fights.

Whoever you ask about Ukip’s main aim next week, the answer is always the same: to get Farage elected, a goal that subsumes everything else. But such intense focus on one seat risks disarming Ukip candidates in other winnable constituencies. Party figures often lament that Ukip would have won last year’s Heywood and Middleton by-election if only it had not been on the same day as the Clacton by-election – but if Ukip struggle to cope with two constituencies going to the polls simultaneously, how will the party cope with 650 doing so?

Yet while Ukip face being treated egregiously by the election system, the other great insurgent force this election faces a very different fate. Ukip’s three million votes might yield only three seats (or even fewer) in Westminster, but one million votes for the SNP will win 50 or more seats.

So it will take 20,000 votes to elect every SNP MP, but a million to elect every Ukip MP. Such a result would not only expose the inequities of the UK’s voting system, but fuel further resentment among those who feel that the interests of the English are neglected.