S small wonder that Ukip’s rise has left the main parties looking bewildered: almost everything they think they know about the anti-EU insurgents is wrong.
A fundamental failure to understand Ukip’s attitudes, its supporter base and operational capacity has left them looking like a gunfighter with a pistol full of blanks. They blaze away at Nigel Farage and his followers, but Ukip keeps on coming. In Survation’s most recent national poll, Ukip has surged to just two points behind the Conservatives.
So here is crash course for the main parties – and the Conservatives especially – in Ukip myth-busting.
First, who are the Ukippers? Conventional Westminster wisdom has it they are disillusioned Conservatives – and ripe for “coming home” to the Tory fold – as well as an electoral problem for David Cameron alone. It is true that there are many ex-Tory members and voters in Ukip’s ranks. But according to large-scale polling by Lord Ashcroft, they are far from the outright majority.
Ukip voters in 2010 were as likely to identify with Labour as they were with the Conservatives. At 31 per cent, Tories are the largest party group among those currently considering supporting Ukip, but they are outnumbered by the 33 per cent who feel no affinity to any party at all – and Labour supporters make up 21 per cent of the total. That changes the political game. If most Ukippers are from non-Tory backgrounds, then messages urging them to “come home” to the blue camp are falling on deaf ears.
The idea that Ed Miliband can sit back and watch the anti-EU party destroy Cameron’s chances of victory is also overly simplistic. Analysis of local election results by Survation demonstrates that, where Ukip does well, it mainly hurts Conservative candidates – but only until the party reaches 16 per cent in the polls. Above that mark, it is Labour’s cake that Farage is eating. As we saw in the South Shields by-election, Ukip is able to appeal in Labour heartlands as well as in Tunbridge Wells.
Then there is the assumption that Ukip isn’t a serious campaigning force – and can be easily dismissed. In 2004, Michael Howard called the party “cranks and gadflies”. The fact they are doing better than ever nine years on suggests they are unusually long-lived for gadflies. The jibe wasn’t just inaccurate, it was counterproductive. Ukippers took pride in the label. Being abused by the main parties simply bound them together more tightly. Combined with the regular BBC implication that being eurosceptic makes you a likely racist, it helped give Ukip’s members a band of brothers attitude that they could only develop under fire.
The political class aren’t always the quickest learners, but it beggars belief that senior Conservatives are still repeating Howard’s error. If David Cameron’s famous cake-based remark was self-defeating, Ken Clarke’s decision to call them “clowns” on the eve of the local election was disastrous.
For so-called clowns, Ukip’s campaigning is deadly serious. As recent by-election performances have shown, its machine – and the willingness of its activists to travel long distances for a chance of victory – has entered a new phase. The party has an effective campaign team, and a decisive by-election action plan which has now put several Tory efforts to shame. Ukip’s leadership are keen students of the Lib Dem model of pavement politics. Rather than reinvent the wheel, they have simply adopted a successful template.
The tidal wave of badges, placards and stickers; the immediate renting of a prominent empty shop on the local high street; the hundreds of footsoldiers called in from across the country - all these are straight out of the Lib Dem playbook. And they work.
Add the distinctly Ukip approach to limited resources, which has been to make them part of its anti-politics appeal, and you have a small party that is now capable of overcoming voters’ fears about wasting their vote.
Ukip still has its weaknesses, of course. The professional regional structure of the party remains decidedly patchy. It doesn’t have the money for a proper IT infrastructure to log voter and canvassing data. Many of its new councillors find themselves unexpectedly elected – unvetted – with almost no local party organisation.
But those gaps may soon close. Ukip’s success has opened doors to new donors, and a few hundred pounds from each of its councillors would give the coffers a boost. Most important of all, and most troublingly for the main parties, the insurgents have a spring in their step – and floating voters are paying attention.
Mark Wallace is executive editor of Conservative Home.