Umunna: digital exclusion driving UKIP support

ukip - nigel farage©

CHUKA Umunna MP has linked poor digital skills with support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

In an interview with the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, Umunna pointed out that, according to a recent poll, 20% of UK adults lack basic digital skills.

"There's been a lot of talk of communities who have been disconnected from our global economy," he added, "those, of course, were a lot of those who were voting for UKIP in the local and European elections.

SOURCE: BBC/Youtube. Comments on internet users at 3:30.

"Of that mass of people who can't do the things that all of us take for granted, a very large number of them are from those [UKIP voting] communities."

Digital dreams

Umunna made his comments to Marr so that he could bring up Labour's digital taskforce, which aims to improve digital skills and is fronted by former Tomorrow's World presenter Maggie Philbin.

"The next Labour Government, we are going to be absolutely focused on connecting people to the global economy so that they can realise their dreams and aspirations," Umunna said.

UKIP were less than taken with being encouraged to realise their dreams, though.

Umunna's comments show Labour is "far from being the party of the working classes and is increasingly becoming the club for the snobby elite", UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall said.

Young Independence, a UKIP group for younger voters, took a similar line.

Do UKIP voters have poor digital skills?

Clearly many UKIP supporters have no problem getting their point across online. But how about in general?

Is there any truth in the idea that UKIP voters are more likely to have poor digital skills?

The research Umunna referenced in his interview was a 2014 Ipsos MORI poll for the BBC which found that 20% of respondents were unable to do four online basics: sending and receiving an email, browsing the internet and filling in an online form.

bbc ipsos mori skills

SOURCE: BBC/Ipsos MORI Digital Capabilities report [pdf].

The same report found that lack of digital skills is highly correlated to older age and to being in the lower socio economic groups.

bbc ipsos mori skills

SOURCE: BBC/Ipsos MORI Digital Capabilities report [pdf].

According to the polls, many UKIP voters fall into those same groups.

UKIP support among working class pensioners rose from 3% to 28% between 2005 and 2013, according to the British Election Study.

According to YouGov, UKIP voters are also less likely than voters generally to be above average earners and many have some of the UK's lowest incomes.

In extremely broad terms, then, the link seems to make sense.

It also makes sense if we look at geographic areas. On the left is a list from Ofcom of the area where people are most likely to have never been online.

Ofcom never been online

Many of these places elected a UKIP MEP or local councillors, or saw the UKIP vote increase significantly in the last election.

In North East Lincolnshire the UKIP vote increased by about 40%, for example, and in the Gwent valleys UKIP came a very close second to Labour.

Weak link

Based on the data we have, however, the link is weak.

Age is, for example, one of the biggest predictors of digital exclusion and many UKIP voters are older.

However, it's not evenly distributed: those over 75 are over five times more likely not to be using the internet than people aged 55 to 64 but there's no evidence that UKIP support is similarly skewed towards the over 75s.

Mostly because of the age gap, we also know that women are more likely to have no or poor online skills than men.

But UKIP skews the other way, more men than women voted for them last time.

And, of course, there's nothing here at all to say that this is causation rather than correlation, which is what Umunna clearly implied.

Offline, out of touch

At the end of the day, however, UKIP's anger doesn't really have much to do with whether or not their voters are likely to be digitally excluded.

It stems from a perception that Labour think their views are silly or out of touch.

If UKIP supporters were a bit more plugged in, Umunna seemed to say (especially in UKIP's retelling), they would come back to Labour. This is not a smart way of indicating that you are listening to a group's concerns.

Worse, the ensuing row may have succeeded in politicising a push to get more people online that has been supported by all parties for years now, even if the commitment hasn't always been consistent with their other policies.

Publicising Labour's planned digital taskforce, Maggie Philbin said, "I would like to emphasise that this is a completely independent piece of work which will be shared with all political parties to inform future policies as they see fit."

There doesn't seem to be much chance of that now.

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