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.

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

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.