Douglas Carswell, who defected to Ukip from the Conservatives, with Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip’s rise isn’t all good news for Labour

Ukip could cost Labour several seats next year.

If Ed Miliband gets into Downing Street, he will forever be in Douglas Carswell’s debt. Such has been the reaction to Carswell’s decision to switch from the Conservatives to Ukip. Since Ukip takes significantly more votes from the Tories than anyone else, the right’s split could benefit Labour in much the same way as the left’s split benefited the Conservatives in the 1980s.

Yet Carswell’s defection poses a challenge for Labour, too. Just because Ukip will hurt the Conservatives more in 2015 does not mean that Labour can afford to be blasé about the threat. Eight of the ten seats that Ukip are most likely to win in 2015 are Labour-held, according to analysis by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin in Revolt on the Right. In these seats, Carswell’s manouevre is bad news for Labour: the more popular Ukip is, the more vulnerable these Labour seats are. The presence of a Ukip MP in Westminster will give the party momentum and a likely influx of donations, both of which should make a number of Labour MPs very twitchy.

Should Carswell win the Clacton by-election, it will also reveal a new phenomenon: natural Conservatives voting tactically for Ukip. It is one that has worrying implications for Labour. The toxicity of the Conservative brand – 40 per cent of voters say they would never vote Tory – has protected Labour in many seats, even as its vote has fallen and electoral turnout has collapsed. There are a lot of northerners whose views – especially on welfare, immigration and crime – chime with the Tories, but who would never, ever vote for them. This presents an opportunity for Ukip.

Take Great Grimsby. It has long been regarded as a safe Labour seat, but the party lost 15,000 votes between 1997 and 2010, when Austin Mitchell was elected with only 32.7 per cent of the vote. The Conservative brand may not be strong enough to win there, but what of Ukip? By uniting the anti-Labour vote – a coalition of normal Conservative voters and disenchanted non-voters and Labourites – Ukip should give Labour reason to doubt that they will be able to hold onto the seat. The Ukip candidate in Great Grimsby, Victoria Ayling, almost won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010. Like Carswell, therefore, she is ideally placed to get hordes of Tory voters to plump for Ukip.

Not that Mitchell thinks so. "Great Grimbsy is a safe seat," the constituency's retiring MP told me. "It’s a Labour seat." Such an attitude doesn't amount to much of a strategy to combat Ukip.

In the short-term, Ukip’s rise will benefit Labour more than the Conservatives. But, even in next year’s general election, the party could deprive Labour of several MPs – either by ousting Labour or winning a seat from the Conservatives that should be within the opposition's grasp. In Thurrock, the Tories only have a lead of 92 over Labour. If Labour are to become the largest party next year, let alone win an overall majority, such a seat ought to be turning red with ease. Yet Lord Ashcroft’s recent poll of the constituency had Ukip on course to win the seat; Ukip also lead in another top Labour target, Thanet South. As Rob Ford suggests, in seats such as these, it appears as if Ukip may be taking more votes from Labour than the Tories.

And the rise of Ukip also means that more political debate will move on to areas that Labour is uncomfortable discussing: Europe and immigration. As shadow minister Lisa Nandy recently told me: "The forces in British politics at the moment are all on the right".

If Labour is complacent to the Ukip threat, it may regret it in 2015 and beyond. Should it form a government, Ukip will be ideally placed to benefit from working class discontent with the party. In many seats, Ukip could challenge Labour more than the Conservatives ever have. Labour complacency to the Ukip threat will soon look like folly.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.