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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.