UK Independence Party Could Cost Cameron the Next Election, Say Pollsters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron listens to Chancellor George Osborne speak during the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, September 29, 2014. Darren Staples/Reuters

In the wake of the high-profile defections of MPs Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell from Britain's ruling Conservative Party to the insurgent UK Independence Party (Ukip) in recent weeks, leading pollsters say that the anti-EU party could change the outcome of next year's general election.

Professor John Curtice, a leading polling expert from the University of Strathclyde, estimates that the Conservatives could lose as many as 24 seats as a result of former Conservative voters switching to Ukip in marginal constituencies.

Peter Kellner, president of polling organisation YouGov, anticipates both Reckless and Carswell winning their respective upcoming by-elections - Carswell "with a stonking majority". Both MPs have opted to re-contest their seats in by-elections that will draw much media attention in the run up to the general election in May. Kellner suggests that the momentum and publicity derived from these victories will inspire further gains, as would a growing sense of Ukip as a legitimate political party, with "two MPs able to command attention in the House of Commons".

"Earlier this year, I thought Ukip would probably win no seats next year. I can now envisage them winning up to ten," Kellner admitted. As well as Carswell and Reckless, he predicts that Nigel Farage will win in Thanet South in the general election, with Diane James possibly winning in Eastleigh, where she narrowly lost last year's by-election. He also sees "half a dozen other seats along England's east coast between the Humber and the Channel" plausibly going to Ukip.

Gideon Skinner, the head of political research for Ipsos Mori, says that the situation for the Conservatives is critical. "A third of the Ukip vote comes from ex-Conservative voters," he explains, "and we know that Ukip are making the running on Europe, and the immigration issue."

Lord Ashcroft, a leading Conservative donor and the party's former treasurer, warned over the weekend that Labour will win the next election "with a comfortable majority" unless the Tories make significant changes to their campaign, as he unveiled new research suggesting the party is behind in key marginal seats.

Curtice agrees with Ashcroft's analysis. "[He] is saying what has been obvious for a considerable length of time. Ukip is the principal destination for Tory defectors."

Curtice estimated that the Conservatives could lose between 12 and 24 seats, mainly to Labour, as a result of the growing popularity of Ukip in key marginal constituencies. The losses of these seats would amount to a 2% swing in Labour's favour.

The reasons for the swing, he said, were complex. "The Tories aren't looking terribly strong," Curtice claimed, they are "failing to win people back from Ukip". He added that they are "struggling to translate the economic recovery into votes", because "Ukip voters are generally very pessimistic."

Curtice also suggests that specific Conservative policies had helped stack the electoral maths against them. "The moment Conservative backbenchers blocked proposals for House of Lords reform, it gave the Lib Dems an excuse to scrap the boundary review," he says. According to Curtice, current boundaries work "substantially to Labour's advantage."

He also argues that Conservative opposition to the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV), a system which proposed to take voters' second preferences into account, was misguided, as AV would have almost certainly allowed the Conservatives to derive support from Ukip converts in future general elections. Curtice explained that Conservatives who opposed AV during the 2011 referendum "didn't see Ukip coming".

To win Ukip support, Curtice suggested, "[the Conservatives] should focus on proposals like raising the minimum wage", since Ukip's demographic, "isn't terribly affluent, and favours economic intervention." George Osborne's proposals to protect the savings of pensioners, including the abolition of the 55% tax on unspent money left in a pension plan at the saver's death which was announced earlier today, will do little to gain support from Ukip voters, who, he said, "don't have large pension funds to worry about".

According to Curtice, the 2015 general election will be "unprecedented", thanks to the rise of Ukip as a serious fourth party and the current unpopularity of the traditional three. "English politics looks more fractured than at any time since the introduction of mass franchise in 1918," he added.

The latest YouGov General Election voting intention poll puts the Labour Party in the lead, taking a 36% share, ahead of the Conservatives' 31%, with Ukip coming in at 15% and the Lib Dems and Greens tied on 6%.