Mark Reckless’s win over Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst in the Rochester and Strood by-election doubled the number of UKIP MPs in Westminster and reignited speculation as to who would be next to defect.
The Tory defeat in Rochester was indeed a bad day for Cameron and the party, with many commentators highlighting what was seen to be an ineffective campaign, despite reports that MPs were required to campaign in the constituency three times in the run up to November 20th. Others, however, argued it was worse day for Labour with Emily Thornberry’s controversial tweet, subsequent resignation and the fact that UKIP continues to pull Labour party supporters into its ranks. It’s a day the Lib Dems will too want to forget, polling 5th, 1,300 votes behind the Greens and 150 votes ahead of the Monster Raving Looney party.
On the back UKIP’s success in Rochester and in Clacton, pollsters and pundits have turned their attention to estimating the number of seats UKIP would win come May 2015. The numbers vary considerably: projections range from 5, 30 or even 128 seats. Back in 2013, Farage claimed that UKIP would put a UKIP candidate in every parliamentary seat, but given the rate of UKIP selections to date, that appears—perhaps as it did from the start—highly unlikely. Instead, and on the back of success in both by-elections, UKIP will have to concentrate its campaign resources on its target seats—reaching out to a broad base of potential supporters in those seats.
So what is clear is that UKIP will challenge more seats than ever before. What is less clear is who UKIP candidates are: their backgrounds, previous political experience and occupation and how this compares to candidates from the established parties. The focus on candidates’ background is perhaps more salient than ever before. But as the Conservatives found out in Rochester, playing the background card can backfire: commentators were quick to point out the irony of portraying Reckless as the Oxford educated, Westminster insider given the Tories had selected him to stand in the constituency in 2010.
So how does the background of UKIP candidates—in terms of age and sex—compare to newly selected candidates from the other parties? Drawing on data from the PCUK project, UKIP candidates are—on average—older than candidates from the more established parties. The average age of Tory candidates is 39, by far the youngest among the six parties here. Average age is similar for Labour, LibDem and Green candidates, with UKIP and Plaid candidates much older, 50 and 52 respectively. Early analysis suggests UKIP candidates buck the trend of the ‘career politician’ with many having worked in business or owned their own, prior to entering politics.
Earlier this year there was much talk of Cameron’s problem with women, both in the electorate and in terms of the selection of women candidates. But Cameron’s problem—at least with respect to women candidates—is less of a problem than was once perceived and is by far outstripped by UKIP.
Women candidates make up 34% of newly selected Tory candidates; 38% for Labour; 30% for LibDems; 30% for Plaid Cymru; and 35% for the Greens. The party difference is more pronounced when we consider seats that the parties are likely to win. In seats where the parties’ incumbent MP has announced he/she is stepping down, 35% of Conservative candidates, 75% of Labour candidates and 40% of Liberal Democrat Candidates are women. The new ‘women problem’ is Farage’s as women make up just 13% of UKIP candidates. Indeed a recent article showed there are more men called Steven or David standing for UKIP than there are women.
Farage himself has acknowledged a problem getting ‘sensible’ women to support UKIP; arguing that their ‘risk averse’ nature makes them less likely to throw their support to a new political party. There’s not much evidence yet to support the risk aversion hypothesis, although sexist statements from members and the party’s bloke-ish image, has been shown to turn women away, particularly those younger and better educated.
Although UKIP supporters are disproportionately male, other small parties don’t necessarily share this problem. The Green party, for example, counts a greater number of women than men among its supporters. Neither is Farage’s claim that the newness of the party explains women’s relative aversion, since the SNP also garners the majority of its support from men and has now become the largest political party in Scotland. These party differences would suggest that there is more to UKIP’s problem with women than Farage is prepared to admit.
Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, Rosie Campbell & Chrysa Lamprinakou