Grant Shapps attacked Ukip and defectors at Conservative party conference today. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

"He lied and he lied and he lied": how are the Tories tackling defections to Ukip?

The Tories need to play on the fact that Ukip is still not a credible party.

As your Party Chairman, I share your deep sense of betrayal and anger.

We have been let down by somebody who has repeatedly lied to his constituents, and to you:

Who said one thing, and then did another.

Last month, he looked us in the eye, and said only our Prime Minister could secure a say for the British people on Europe.

Last week, he insisted he would be campaigning for an outright Conservative victory.

Two days ago, he was busy leaving phone messages, claiming he was enthusiastic about joining us to campaign for Rachel Maclean here in Birmingham today.

He lied and he lied and he lied.

This is what the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps told Tory party conference in his speech this afternoon. He was referring to the actions of Mark Reckless MP, the erstwhile Tory MP who announced his defection to Ukip at its conference yesterday.

Shapps has set the tone for his party’s conference this week by coming down hard on the Tory defector. The leadership is willing to address defections, but is not wavering in its narrative about returning to Downing Street in 2015 – and with a majority this time.

One key part of the Tories’ political counter to Ukip is to emphasise that it is a credible party, whereas Ukip is not. Reckless, when he jumped ship, suggested to Ukip conference that he was joining its party because he sees it as a credible option for Britain’s future. But the Tories should really play hard on the fact that Ukip – though it gave the appearance of a buoyant party on the up during the first of its annual conferences that the media has taken (somewhat) seriously – is still a mess when it comes to a consistent message.

There are many examples of Ukip U-turns that show the party still hasn’t organised itself, in spite if its growing popularity. Today, Steve Crowther, Ukip’s executive chair, told John Pienaar on Radio 5 Live that its manifesto at the last election was “extremely broad and well-worked”, whereas the party leader Nigel Farage has famously dismissed it as “drivel”.

Another recent example is from this Friday, when Suzanne Evans, Ukip’s deputy chairman, seemed to change her position on airstrikes against Islamic State in a matter of seconds, having been told Farage opposes them. She had previously expressed her support for them. A story is now developing about whether Farage is at odds with his party on this matter.

Then there is the matter of Ukip’s policies. Announcements at their conference show a wholesale departure from its previous plans. For example, its enthusiasm for a flat tax has been undermined by a range of complex taxes mooted at its conference, which are intended to appeal to “blue-collar” voters. Then there’s the NHS, in which Ukip is now championing investment, in spite of Farage commenting in January: “Only UKIP dares cut spending on NHS and pensions.” There is also a new insistence that the party will not be privatising the health service, something that was not in their narrative before.

These are just a few cases of the flip-flopping Ukip has been doing on its rise to prominence, and is a clear sign of a party going for the “all things to all men” tactic. This won’t always wash, however, if it continues to revel in smugly snatching Tory personnel for itself. Labour’s attack line against Ukip, “More Tory than the Tories”, becomes increasingly convincing the more Ukip embraces Conservative defectors. Ukip’s U-turns to more palatable policies for working-class voters won’t be able to overshadow this.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.