Not just for the right: Nigel Farage celebrates with local councillors in South Ockenden, 23 May. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.