Ukip is currently polling between 15 and 20 per cent among the electorate as a whole, but its support is seriously skewed towards older, less well-educated voters. Indeed, one of the party’s spokespeople famously blamed its failure to do anything like as well in London as it did in the rest of the country at local and European elections on the fact that the capital had more than its fair share of “educated, cultured and young” people. A new survey of the nation’s university students by Youthsight suggests that Nigel Farage is going to find it incredibly difficult to do much about this. It reveals that only 4 per cent of UK students would currently vote Ukip. It also suggests why that might be – and why the Conservatives should be concerned, too.
One reason why students aren’t attracted to Ukip is because they see the party as being long way to the Right of where they see themselves. On a scale running from zero to ten, where zero represents very Left-wing and ten very Right-wing, the average British student places themself at 4.6. When asked to place political parties on the same scale, the same students locate Labour, on average, at 4.1 and the Conservatives at 6.9 – which partly explains why Ed Miliband’s party is more popular among students than David Cameron’s. But students locate Ukip at 7.6 – a yawning ideological gap that is hard to bridge.
Just as problematic for Ukip is the widespread perception among students that it is racist. Six out of ten students think that’s the case, with those from ethnic minority communities even more convinced than their white counterparts. There are some differences between students who see themselves as more Conservative than Labour or Liberal Democrat: only just over half who see themselves as Tories consider Ukip to be racist, whereas around three-quarters of those who identify with Labour or the Lib Dems would paste that label on Farage’s party. Students who see themselves as Conservatives are also much more likely to think that Ukip is actually saying what a lot of people think but are too afraid to say.
Another crucial problem that Ukip faces when it comes to attracting the young and educated is that students are remarkably liberal when it comes to immigration. True, only 9 per cent of students think that the government should allow in anyone who wants to come and live here. But a further 72 per cent are happy for it to allow in anyone who has a job or another source of financial support. Only 11 per cent want immigration stopped – and almost half of them would make an exception for those coming from one of the other 27 EU member states. Nor is there any significant variation on the issue between students coming from white and those coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, or between students who see themselves as Conservative and those who see themselves as Labour or Lib Dem.
One of Ukip’s other bugbears is the European Convention on Human Rights. Here again, the party is faced with a bunch of people who, for the most part, see no problem with the liberal status quo. Only 12 per cent of students overall think that the UK should withdraw from the Convention.
So is there anything that Ukip can do to get British students to at least think about voting for them? For instance, would a promise to get rid of loan-funded university tuition fees make a difference? Maybe – but maybe not. Just over a quarter of students said that a Ukip promise to abolish tuition fees would make them more likely to vote for the party. But getting on for two-thirds said it would make no difference, and a few said it would actually make it less likely.
Now, Ukip strategists are unlikely to worry too much about all this: students aren’t their target audience after all. But students are the middle aged and the elderly of tomorrow, and there’s a lot of research around which suggests that they don’t shed their social liberalism once they’ve graduated. Again, this may not bother Ukip: the party only needs to get into double-figures to matter in British politics even if it can’t win parliamentary seats. But there is one party that should care about the findings of this survey, and that’s the Conservatives.
Any Tory who thinks that the party’s long-term electoral interests are best served by trying to match or even to “out-Ukip” Ukip should think again. Only 19 per cent of students currently say they would vote Conservative. Doubtless, as they grow older and begin to earn a salary, own property and pay taxes, they will give the Conservatives more of a hearing – but only as long as Tories don’t try so hard to keep up with Nigel Farage that they end up turning themselves back into “the nasty party”.