Not just for the right: Nigel Farage celebrates with local councillors in South Ockenden, 23 May. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour must find a way of speaking to the “left behind”

Any lazy assumptions a strong Ukip would work in Labour’s favour will have been dispelled by the results, which showed the purple party racking up votes deep inside Labour’s northern heartlands.

Launching Ukip’s manifesto in April, Nigel Farage promised that the elections of 22 May would represent “such a shock in the British political system that it will be nothing short of an earthquake”. In one way, at least, he delivered. Not since the emergence of Labour has a new British political party succeeded in topping a national poll.

However, while the ground is shaking beneath us, the cause of the tremors is not yet clear. Mr Farage has been keen to cast the result as an endorsement of his party’s best-known policies: evidence that the public wants an end to our membership of the European Union and to the open borders that come with it. The sort of Conservatives who have long supported such policies anyway have largely agreed.

Yet this looks like an oversimplification. The rise of Ukip has coincided with a notable increase in support for Britain’s EU membership. And there are swaths of Ukip’s domestic policies – abolishing employment rights, privatising the NHS – which have the backing of only the tiniest share of the British electorate. Whatever else the Farage insurgency represents, it is not a simple lurch to the right.

If the Conservative Party is at risk of wishful thinking, Labour is at risk of complacency. Before the election, the party’s leadership was strangely in favour of Ukip: a divided left had helped hamper Labour in the 1980s, the thinking went, so a divided right could help hamper the Tories today. Yet any lazy assumptions that a strong Ukip would work in Labour’s favour will have been dispelled quickly by the results, which showed the purple party racking up votes deep inside Labour’s northern heartlands.

If Mr Farage’s earthquake is neither a surge in Euroscepticism nor a Tory civil war, it is tempting to conclude that it is something altogether darker. The party’s campaign, after all, traded shamelessly on disquiet about immigrants. Many of its chosen candidates have expressed views in public that are racist, homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise expose their discomfort with anyone who is not a straight white man. Such views were covered extensively in the media but with little obvious impact on Ukip’s poll rating. It is possible that Mr Farage’s achievement was simply to repackage prejudice in a form that was no longer taboo to Middle England. There is, however, one other possibility: that Ukip has
genuinely tapped into a section of the electorate that does not feel represented by the existing parties. Most of the geographic areas where the party has had the greatest success share certain characteristics. They are economically depressed and often far from the centres of economic activity. Their elderly populations are unusually large; their graduates unusually few. Most noticeably, they are overwhelmingly white.

Ukip’s voters, in other words, are drawn largely from the section of society that feels left behind: those to whom free trade and ethnic diversity represent not opportunity and vibrancy, but a stark economic threat.

Once upon a time, this was a section of the electorate that could rely on Labour and the trade union movement to speak up on its behalf. Now, their voices go largely unheard. Mr Farage can cheerfully suggest that things were better in the old days because, to his supporters, they were.

The probability is that, following the recent results, the mainstream parties will attempt to compete for those voters once again – but the danger is that they will do so not by challenging the Ukip line but by pandering to it. Over the next year, MPs from the three existing parties will likely compete to see who can be most xenophobic, most anti-immigrant, most anti-modernist, without quite tipping over into outright racism. It will not be an edifying sight.

This is precisely the wrong response. Our leaders should be working out how to spread the proceeds of growth and the benefits of modernity more fairly among the population: to ensure that those who have lost out in the past 30 years do not lose out in the next 30. That is a big ask. Far easier to blame outsiders than to reform institutions – far easier to talk about immigration than to talk about class.

Next year’s general election is likely to be the most unpredictable in a generation: with a fourth party, potentially competitive in both north and south, the political map will change in ways few can yet foresee. Yet if there is one prediction that can be safely made it is that we have not seen the last of the politics of fear.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Sadiq Khan gives Jeremy Corbyn's supporters a lesson on power

The London mayor doused the Labour conference with cold electoral truths. 

There was just one message that Sadiq Khan wanted Labour to take from his conference speech: we need to be “in power”. The party’s most senior elected politician hammered this theme as relentlessly as his “son of a bus driver” line. His obsessive emphasis on “power” (used 38 times) showed how far he fears his party is from office and how misguided he believes Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are.

Khan arrived on stage to a presidential-style video lauding his mayoral victory (a privilege normally reserved for the leader). But rather than delivering a self-congratulatory speech, he doused the conference with cold electoral truths. With the biggest personal mandate of any British politician in history, he was uniquely placed to do so.

“Labour is not in power in the place that we can have the biggest impact on our country: in parliament,” he lamented. It was a stern rebuke to those who regard the street, rather than the ballot box, as the principal vehicle of change.

Corbyn was mentioned just once, as Khan, who endorsed Owen Smith, acknowledged that “the leadership of our party has now been decided” (“I congratulate Jeremy on his clear victory”). But he was a ghostly presence for the rest of the speech, with Khan declaring “Labour out of power will never ever be good enough”. Though Corbyn joined the standing ovation at the end, he sat motionless during several of the applause lines.

If Khan’s “power” message was the stick, his policy programme was the carrot. Only in office, he said, could Labour tackle the housing crisis, air pollution, gender inequality and hate crime. He spoke hopefully of "winning the mayoral elections next year in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham", providing further models of campaigning success. 

Khan peroration was his most daring passage: “It’s time to put Labour back in power. It's time for a Labour government. A Labour Prime Minister in Downing Street. A Labour Cabinet. Labour values put into action.” The mayor has already stated that he does not believe Corbyn can fulfil this duty. The question left hanging was whether it would fall to Khan himself to answer the call. If, as he fears, Labour drifts ever further from power, his lustre will only grow.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.