Andrew Whitaker: Ukip rise could see history repeat in reverse

THE death of Margaret Thatcher this week has sparked memories of a great many key political events of the 1980s, during which the former prime minister secured decisive election victories over the Labour Opposition.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that part of Baroness Thatcher’s electoral success was due to the split in the anti-Tory vote partly caused by the breakaway of Social Democratic Party (SDP) from Labour in the early 1980s.

The SDP, made up of former Labour big hitters such as Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen, in alliance with the Liberals won 25 per cent of the national vote, close behind Labour’s 28 per cent during the Tory landslide victory at the 1983 general election.

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True, the alliance managed just 23 Westminster seats, but a surge by the fledgling SDP managed to siphon support away from Labour in key seats, allowing Baroness Thatcher to win more seats and secure a triple-digit majority in 1983. Although the SDP, which largely consisted of figures disillusioned at Labour’s leftwards shift in the early 1980s, has long since disappeared into the dustbin of history, it’s entirely possible that this history could repeat itself of sorts at the next general election.

David Cameron’s Tories are facing a real challenge from the right in the form of Ukip, fresh from its impressive electoral performance at the Eastleigh by-election finishing second place behind the Lib Dems.

The direct right-wing pitch made to traditional Tory voters by Ukip leader Nigel Farage could cause all sorts of political headaches for Mr Cameron’s party, particularly given Ukip’s steadfast refusal to agree a non-aggression pact with Labour in marginal seats.

Ukip could be on course for more triumphs at next year’s European elections, when the party will trade heavily on its anti-European Union (EU) stance. However, the party is likely to come under much more scrutiny at the 2015 general election, a contest Mr Farage appears to be supremely confident will see Ukip members elected as MPs for the first time.

Even if the task of winning MPs proves too much for Ukip, an aggressive national campaign by the party could spilt the right-wing vote in critical marginal areas and hand key seats to Labour.

Ukip candidatures could ironically aid Labour and hand Ed Miliband the keys to 10 Downing Street, in the same way the SDP effectively strengthened Baroness Thatcher’s hand at the 1983 election.

Of course Ukip, unlike the SDP, is made-up largely of former Tories of a Thatcherite persuasion and Mr Farage was among those heaping praise on the late former prime minister’s politics this week.

But regardless of the differences between the SDP and Ukip, the actual effect of their electoral intervention could be to swing the general election result in a direction at odds with their political stance.