In an insightful piece in this blog, Matthew Goodwin reported on his research about the UKIP and the BNP, portraying the former as a ‘polite alternative’ to the latter or the ‘BNP in Blazers’. Its more civil face allows UKIP to appeal to voters repelled by the neo-fascist image of the BNP, and to acquire ‘access to mainstream media and political elites’.
Goodwin’s argument is based on an analysis of the kinds of voters attracted to UKIP, in terms of their predisposing characteristics (age, gender, region and social class), as well as their political background, economic expectations and issue preferences. From our own ongoing research on electoral competition we suggest a slightly different perspective that may also help to understand how these parties relate to voters. To achieve that, we focus on the extent to which different parties are ‘fishing in the same pond’, i.e. relying on the same group of people for their support.
We draw our information from a 2009 survey of the adult population in which respondents were asked not only to state which party they would vote for in the case of a general election, but also how probable it was that they would ever vote for each of the parties standing for election. The answers reflect all the electoral preferences that people have for the various parties without constraining them to a single party. Combining all people that express a preference for a particular party yields an estimate of that party’s aggregate appeal to voters, i.e., its potential support. This potential support will rarely be fully fulfilled at any particular election largely because these pools of support overlap so that gains for one party translate into losses for the others that rely on the same potential electorate. Those overlaps are the consequence of people expressing high preferences for more than only one party.
We can display respondents’ preferences in a figure in which UKIP, the BNP and the Conservatives are represented by circles, the sizes of which correspond to their electoral potential. By drawing the circles somewhat on top of each other, we can also represent the size of the groups expressing simultaneous preferences for two, or even for all three of these parties. Doing so yields the figure presented above.
Goodwin and his colleagues are, indeed, correct in suggesting that UKIP can be seen as ‘a polite alternative’ to the BNP: a very large part of the BNP circle overlaps with the UKIP circle. But this also holds for the Conservative party: almost half of BNP supporters express high preferences for the Tories. So, there happens to be more than one ‘polite alternative’ for BNP supporters. Indeed, this extends even further, as more than 40% of BNP supporters also express strong preferences for the Greens, and little under a quarter of them expressed similar preferences for the Labour party (not pictured here to avoid clutter).
What this research shows therefore is that the Conservatives are – roughly to the same degree as UKIP – the ‘polite alternative’ to the BNP. Put differently, the BNP is the ‘ugly face’ of the other two right-wing parties.