“Vote Ukip, get Labour” – the Tories’ slightly desperate war-cry in the face of the surge in popularity of Nigel Farage’s merry band may well be proved totally wrong. But the loss of a slogan would be a small price to pay by the Conservative Party for the good news they’ll be reading this week that the Labour Party is more vulnerable to the Ukip threat than once thought.
A leading expert in the rightwing party’s rise, Dr Matthew Goodwin, who frequently analyses Ukip and the political landscape changing as we approach the 2015 general election, has done the most comprehensive study yet of Ukip’s performance in recent elections and has discovered Labour’s vulnerability in the face of Farage’s party.
This new analysis of Ukip’s performance has found that the party has made impressive inroads into a variety of largely working-class, traditionally Labour-voting constituencies. According to the Independent, the study concludes that the Labour Party’s complacency over Ukip’s impact on their electoral chances could be a key factor in Ed Miliband’s fight to reach No 10.
Goodwin has identified five key constituencies for Labour that are particularly precarious in the face of Ukip’s success. These include Great Grimsby, the incumbent of which, Austin Mitchell MP, will be standing down in 2015, and Ashfield in Nottingham, the MP of which is Gloria De Piero, shadow women and equalities minister and often tipped as a “rising star” in Miliband’s shadow cabinet.
This report, which suggests Ukip’s popularity in key Labour constituencies is partly due to concern over immigration levels, must be worrying for Miliband and many will accuse him of being too low-key about the impact of Ukip on the Labour vote.
Yet the complacent belief that the rise of a rightwing fringe party will only snatch Tory votes and is therefore an asset to Labour is one that has long since passed. Even back in April 2013, over a year before Ukip’s spectacular European election results, it was reported that Labour had launched a review into Ukip’s popularity; clearly the party was aware that, particularly in heartlands of the blue collar vote, Ukip could do some damage to the left as well as the right.
So Labour has been aware of the problem for a while, but only just seems to be waking up to the solution. Its message on immigration has grown tougher, but the communication of the message has been soft at best. “It is not prejudiced to worry about immigration,” is Miliband’s line, “it is understandable.” But he hasn’t said it loud enough, so it simply doesn’t sound like he’s “worried” enough. The shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves has also toughened Labour’s stance on EU migrants, as her suggestion came out yesterday that migrants should be denied benefits until they have contributed through the tax system. This had more impact as it came directly after, and outdid, the PM’s plan for immigrants only to be able to claim benefits for three months.
If Labour continues to move clearly in this direction, it will go some way in countering the threat from Ukip. However, it is likely to be a fiery division line in the party. Although there are many Labour MPs, particularly in working-class northern seats, who believe that their party should be speaking out about immigration and welfare, there are many others who warn the party not to try and “out-Ukip Ukip”. It is a divide over how the party should play current political, electoral challenges – but it also cuts into the key tension in Labour ideology: the old tug between more “Blue Labour” ideals, and the New Labour heritage that Miliband, despite his protestations, has not quite shaken off.