Labour remain ahead in European election poll, but who'll triumph in May?

UKIP trails Labour by six points but, as in 2009, the party is hoping for a late surge in the polls.

Nigel Farage has been predicting for months that UKIP will win this May's European elections but the latest poll, in common with all other recent surveys, shows Labour remain ahead. YouGov's poll for the Sun puts Miliband's party on 32%, UKIP on 26%, the Tories on 23% and the Lib Dems on 9% (which would leave them with no MEPs on a uniform swing). 

Given this, you might expect Farage to be lowering expectations, but he remains confident that his party will triumph on 22 May. UKIP figures point out that they only moved into second place in the final weeks of the 2009 campaign after a late surge (aided in part by the expenses scandal). On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7%, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18%, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5%, finishing in second place, 0.8% ahead of Labour. While recognising that the race will be tight, UKIP strategists are hoping to pull off a narrow victory this time round. 

But the year has not started as they would have wanted. Farage has long vowed to turn the European elections into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration but the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were rlifted on 1 January (just 24 Romanians have entered the UK, according to the country's ambassador) means he may now struggle to do so. Labour enjoys the advantage of simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Party strategists hope that enough voters whose default setting is to put a cross in the Labour box will turn out for the party to see off the Farageist threat (my own prediction is that it will). 

If Labour do finish second, the consoling factor will be that the Tories, for the first time in a national election, will have finished third. While Conservatives hope that such a result is already "priced in", the danger remains that it will prompt another insurrection from Tory backbenchers determined for their party to adopt an even tougher line on Europe. This would detract from the party's central message that Labour can't be trusted to manage the economy and ensure that it continues to obsess over an issue of little or no interest to most voters.

As polling by Ipsos MORI has long shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of the public's concerns. Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is "a sideshow" for most of them. He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people."

For the Lib Dems, the worst case scenario is that they finish fifth, behind the Greens (who won 8% of the vote last time round). At the Lib Dem conference last year, one senior party activist suggested to me that this prompt a leadership challenge against Clegg. With a year to go until the general election, there would be still be just enough time to send for Cable or Farron. 

More than on any previous occasion, all three of the main party leaders have good reason to dread the count on 22 May. 

Nigel Farage prepares to speak at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester Town Hall on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour trying to outdo Ukip on border control is the sure path to defeat

Only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for free movement. 

There is no point trying to deny it. Paul Nuttall’s election as Ukip leader is dangerous for Labour. Yes, Nuttall may not be a credible voice for working-class people – he ran as a Tory councillor in 2002 and has said that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. Yes, he may be leader of a party which has (for now) haemorrhaged donors and supporters. But what Nuttall’s election represents is the coming of age for a form of right-wing populism which is pointed directly at Labour’s base. Along with the likes of Ukip's major donor Arron Banks, Nuttall will open up a second front against Labour – focused on blaming migrants for falling wages and crumbling services.

In the face of this danger, and the burning need to create a narrative of its own about the neglect of the communities it represents, Labour’s main response has been confusion. Barely a week has gone by without a major Labour figure repeating the touchstone myths on which Ukip has built its working class roots. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Emily Thornberry openly backed the idea that migration has dragged down wages. “Do I think that at the moment too many people come into this country? Yes I do”, she said.

Another response has been to look for policies that transcend the debate altogether, while giving a nod to the perceived “concerns” that voters harbour about immigration. When Clive Lewis spoke to the Guardian some weeks ago, he also repeated the idea that free movement “hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut” and coupled this with compulsory trade union membership for those coming to Britain to work – a closed shop for migrant workers.

It is unsurprising that MPs on the right of the party – many of whom had much to say about the benefits of migration during the EU referendum – have retreated into support for immigration controls. This kind of triangulation and retreat – the opposite of the insurgent leftwing populism that Labour needs to win elections – is the hallmark of Labour’s establishment politics. Those who want to stand and fight on the issue should be concerned that, for now, only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for continued free movement.

At the moment, Labour is chasing the narrative on immigration – and that has to stop. The process that is shifting the debate on migration is Brexit, the British franchise of a global nationalist resurgence that is sweeping the far right to power across the western world. Attempt to negotiate a compromise on migration in the face of that wave, or try to claim it as an “opportunity”, and there is simply no limit to how far Labour will be pushed. What is needed is an ideological counter-attack, which tells a different story about why living standards have deteriorated and offers real solutions.

The reason why wages have stagnated and in recent decades is not immigration. Among the very few studies which find that migration has caused a fall in wages, most conclude that the fall is marginal. The Bank of England’s study, cited by Boris Johnson in the heat of the EU referendum campaign, put the average figure at 0.3 per cent for every ten percentage point rise in migrants in a given sector of work. That rises to 1.8 per cent in some areas.

Median earnings fell by 10.4 per cent between 2007 and 2015, and by 2021 are forecast to be lower in real terms than they were in 2008. For many communities, that fall in wages comes on top of the destruction of industry; the defeat of the trade union movement; the fire sale of Britain’s social housing stock; and years of gruelling Tory austerity. Nuttall’s Ukip will argue that economic and social insecurity are the result of uncontrolled immigration. To give an inch to that claim is to abandon reality.

Labour cannot win against Ukip by playing around with new and innovative border controls – it has to put forward a vision for a radically different kind of society. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is closer than it ever has been to the kind of radical social and economic platform that it will need to regain power - £500bn of investment, building a million new homes a year, raising minimum wage and reinstating proper collective bargaining and trade union rights. What it needs now is clarity – a message about who to blame and what to do, which can cut through the dust kicked up by the Brexit vote.