Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband sharpens his attack on Ukip: more Thatcherite than Thatcher

The Labour leader's message is a smart way to turn working class voters off Farage. 

"I'm not that interested in Nigel Farage," Ed Miliband said recently when asked about the Ukip leader. But to paraphrase Trotsky on the dialectic, Farage is certainly interested in him - and in his voters. The Ukip leader has made it clear that he believes there are few Conservative voters left for his party to win over and that his focus is on attracting supporters from Labour. With Ukip taking the lead in the most recent European election polls, he appears to be having some success. 

In response, ahead of its campaign launch tomorrow, Labour is stepping up its Ukip attack. In an article in today's Daily Mirror, Miliband denounces the party's policies as "more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself." 

Now we have Ukip and Nigel Farage pretending that they are the real champions of Britain’s hardworking people.

This is from a politician who likes to boast that he is the only one 'keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive'.

And the truth is that Ukip's policies towards working people are more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself. 

His party promises higher taxes for working families and huge giveaways for the rich.

He wants bankers’ bonuses to be bigger, while risking 3.5 million jobs by pulling out of the EU and scrapping basic rights at work, like maternity or sick pay.

One of his MEPs has even claimed 'the very existence of the NHS stifles competition' and his party wants to impose charges for visiting a GP. 

I have a clear message for Ukip and Mr Farage: you cannot claim to be a party for working people when you would destroy jobs, our health service, and basic rights.

Rather than attacking the party over its stance on immigration and Europe (precisely the policies that attract working class Labour voters), Miliband has wisely chosen to fight on the territory of the economy and public services. This has the dual benefit of dissuading left-wing voters from supporting Ukip and of reminding right-wing Tories why they have jumped ship. Labour strategists regard the party's recent victory in the Wythenshawe by-election, where it won a comfortable majority of 8,960 (37.4 per cent) over Ukip, as a template for how to fight Farage. The party ran an effective get-out-the-vote operation and attacked Ukip over its support for tax cuts for the rich and GP charges. 

Most of Ukip's supporters, as I've noted before, favour a large state and higher public spending. Polling by YouGov shows that 78 per cent support the nationalisation of the energy companies and 73 per cent back the renationalisation of the railways. Rather than a "code of conduct" for employers, 57 per cent simply want zero-hour contracts to be banned. Rather than a flat tax, the same number support the reintroduction of the 50p rate. 

But there are signs that Farage is shifting leftwards on the economy in a sign to retain their support. He has recently called for tougher regulation of zero-hour contracts and for the abolition of the bedroom tax. Farage has also abandoned Ukip's previous policy of a flat tax of 31 per cent, arguing that higher earners should pay at least 40 per cent. 

Given Ukip's success in attracting working class supporters, it makes no sense for the party to alienate them by adopting a programme of turbo-Thatcherism. In this era of insecurity, there is a large market for a party that combines hostility towards the EU and immigration with a critical stance towards big business. As Farage and his allies know, it is this approach that has enabled the Front National to achieve such success in France.  The challenge for him will be to continue this reorientation without entirely alienating his party's libertarian wing.  

P.S. With both Miliband and Farage appearing on The Andrew Marr Show this Sunday, we can look forward to the first encounter between the pair on the usual sofa slot at the end. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.