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Times Red Box: Is this the Death of UKIP?

Sat, 13 May 2017  |   Insights

By Jimmy Leach:  Nostalgia is morphing into an existential crisis for Ukip. It’s all been a bit X Factor this week. We’re all pretty sure we know the results, we’re just waiting for the novelty acts to be winnowed out and the promoters are trying to keep our attention by organising themes. This week, it’s been nostalgia week.

Nothing new there for Ukip, of course, a party built on viewing the past through tortoiseshell-rimmed, rose-tinted spectacles. But there’s a real danger for them that nostalgia is morphing into an existential crisis, a wistful reminder of a party that no longer needs to exist or, quite soon, will live at all.

This week’s social media data from the analysis company Impact Social shows a party being talked about (in 54,000 posts, tweets and online comments), but the conversations are mutterings around the grave, all talk about their passing, not about their future.

Only 6 per cent of posters have anything positive to say, mostly about immigration, with the majority of opinionated conversation (85 per cent) about a collapse in support and the move of Ukip voters to the Tories. This really is the last knockings of Ukip.

While some still cling to the idea of their voters “holding Tory feet to the fire” on Brexit negotiations, there’s no sense that they need to cast their votes elsewhere to do that. It can easily be done from inside the Tory fold. As the online conversations unfold, there’s a very strong sense that the Ukip race is done.

The fun has even gone out of ridiculing Paul Nuttall and his unfeasible tales. Few posters even mention him. Without Nigel Farage to artificially inflate their profile, the party are simply sinking out of sight - with the conversations around them concentrating on admitting their demise. Few can even raise a level of emotion to celebrate or regret it. It’s simply a fact. So much so, that next week, we’ll turn to the Greens as the fourth (national) party in the datasets.

Nostalgia worked rather better for Labour this week. They, of course, went to town with their sod-it-let’s-do-it manifesto, which chucked in all their old hits from the glory years of nationalisation and public spending. The actual leak of the manifesto barely registered outside the Westminster/media bubble, but the topics within it helped drive them to the second largest share of voice (227,000 posts). It was the full back-to-the-70s routine, as the newspapers put it (note to editors: the railways were nationalised in 1947). Without spoiling the plot for those who weren’t there, that decade didn’t end well for Labour, but there were some signs this week of some of this approach landing well with the current electorate.

At first look, the data doesn’t show promise: 39 per cent negative and 17 per cent positive in the posts measured by Impact Social. But polarisation is good in politics (it kind of worked for Trump), since it entrenches positions. High “neutral” scores simply demonstrate a lack of commitment. Their positive score may be low (creeping up) but more solid. And those in that camp are discussing actual policy - tuition fees, tax, and the manifesto. As well as the perceived media bias against the party.

The ship might be steadying but don’t think it remains heading anywhere else than the rocks. Doubts around Mr Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell (a combined 37 per cent of conversation) gave many the idea that “deluded” Labour (11 per cent) were no-hopers (7 per cent) heading for a landslide defeat (12 per cent) as evidenced by the local elections (17 per cent).

Oddly, that might well satisfy the Labour leadership: a smaller party, with greater purity of political purpose and no hope of actual power. They might be rather satisfied with that.

And if Labour want to see what future irrelevance might look like, then the Lib Dems can show them. At 42,000 posts they had even lower share of voice than the dying Ukip (hey, at least people showed for the funeral). While they started the election promising to breakthrough and be the voice of the opposition, they are simply fading from view. People still talk of Nick Clegg and his tuition fee betrayal in hefty numbers which, combined, gather the same level of attention as Tim Farron, and in much the same negative spirit.

For those trying to talk positively about policy, nothing is breaking through. They are neither surging in popularity nor leading any kind of policy conversation. They are simply an ornament on the political mantlepiece - always there, no-one is quite sure why or whether they like it, but not sure they want to take it down yet either.

Which, of course, leaves the incumbents. Until this week, the Tories seemed content to have the biggest share of the voice (263,000 posts this week), while running the dullest campaign - content to simply not scare the horses and canter to victory.

It started to look slightly different this week. Theresa May’s own Throwback Thursday came in the form of talking up a fox hunting vote. If anything recreates the whiff of the nasty party, that is it, and it fuelled the negativity around the Tories, which rose this week to 29 per cent of the conversation. Anger about the return of stirrup cups and hunting horns concerned 21 per cent of negative posts and old-fashioned 1980s-style frothing about the Tories generally managed to stir the blood at least, for half the posters and give the sense that there is, actually, an election going on. What had seemed like a rather loud political conversation actually began to look like something more serious.

The positive conversations, meanwhile, were simply a robotic repeat of slogans and positions, as parroted by their leader. Nothing to see there, keep moving.

There’s no sign of danger to a Tory victory in all this, but there are signs of a whitening of the knuckles which show that an election may be breaking out. The Conservatives have the scale to withstand the damage caused by hitting old nerves with needless concessions around the fox hunts, but they can do so while absorbing Ukip votes and watching Labour and Liberals slide into introspection and irrelevance respectively.

Nothing, in short, to change the narrative. So whoever is running this thing needs to get rather more inventive with the themes next week. Something with more energy than Ukip’s funeral dirges, at least.

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital communications in Downing Street