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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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