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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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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