The rise of nationalist politics in Barnsley

The Barnsley by-election was a disaster for the LibDems, but a big success for UKIP and the BNP.

On Monday David Miliband warned about the growing subterranean strength of a new politics based on flag, soil, and mono-culturalism. In a poll commissioned by Searchlight 47 per cent of those surveyed wanted a politics based on varying degrees of anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-multiculturalist politics. In Barnsley the votes for the BNP and UKIP showed that politics has roots.

Of course Labour held the seat. Unlike the 1980s when by-election candidates were often eccentric, reflecting a left-lurching party base, the new MP for Barnsley, Dan Jarvis is a former Parachute Regiment officer with service in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Unite and Unison tried to push their candidates into Barnsley but in contrast to the 1980s, the unions have less and less say, let alone control of constituency parties. Labour under Ed Miliband's steady leadership remains a centrist ready-for-future-government party.

10 months ago the Lib Dems came second to Labour. Now they got fewer votes than the BNP. There is a South Yorkshire element to this. Nick Clegg is now known locally as the "Sheffield Fraudmaster" after the decision of his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, to axe a £80 million loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters firm. One of the top DBIS officials told me last night that the loan had been fully approved by civil servants and was not political. It would be repaid with interest and would help the firm make the components for the next generation of power plants in Britain.

The decision to axe it, on the other hand, was wholly political and a disaster for Clegg who has paid a hard price. In Sheffield and neighbouring Barnsley the Sheffield Forgemasters row is associated with Clegg and the Lib Dems. Sheffield is still - just - under Lib Dem control. But in the May elections most South Yorkshire observers see a total Lib Dem wipe-out. The consequence is likely to lead to the Lib Dems being like Labour in 1981 - facing a split as a new Liberal Party emerges willing to take on the government on its illiberalism, its foreign policy blunders, and its harsh social policies. Nick Clegg's association with AV must also worry the Yes2AV camp as they look to the May plebiscite.

But the other political consequence from Barnsley is the 2,953 votes gathered by UKIP, who got more than the Conservatives, and the BNP who overtook the Lib Dems as well as a smaller nationalist party. The view that the BNP is on the point of disintegration may be true in terms of the party's internal organisation, Nick Griffin's incoherence, and financial costs following court tussles with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. But in terms of voting popularity the BNP is still solidly there. So too is UKIP which is becoming as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Europe. Nigel Farage is a far more attractive TV personality than the sweating Nick Griffin. Tory MPs were told 2005-2010 that David Cameron would lead a Eurosceptic government. But in office Cameron has turned into a Euro-realist unable to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, repatriate powers, or do more than deploy delaying tactics over prisoner voting rights. The universities are up in arms about visa bans on students as is business on being able to import key foreign workers. EU residents here are as entitled to UK benefits just as British citizens in Europe cannot be denied social rights in countries where they live and work.

All this is grist to the mill of nationalist, identity politics. David Cameron sought to placate this constituency with his speech attacking multiculturalism in Munich. But Nick Clegg said the opposite in Luton yesterday. Tory MPs would like more audible dog-whistles, an updated version of Powellism-lite. Otherwise the politics of Kipling's "One land, one law, one throne" will surface in new forms. Jonathan Reynolds, one of the smartest of the new Labour MPs has already noted that the Barnsley result signals the end of two-party politics. He is right.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.