Labour needs to get serious about Ukip – by not taking it seriously. Photo: Getty
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Labour underestimates Ukip in thinking purely about its electoral impact

Ukip could prove to be of merely short-term electoral advantage to Ed Miliband; Labour may be in power after 2015, but its principles will not.

Last week, Nigel Farage announced his ambition, not just to be David Cameron's "worst nightmare" but Ed Miliband's as well. The general perception among the progressive media appears to be that Ukip's increasing threat (aptly illustrated by the suspiciously timely resignation of Douglas Carswell) will be a net positive for Labour, making it more difficult for the Conservatives to win the next general election. This is a mistake.

All too often we see politics as being only about the next election. It's not. Politics is about the sort of nation we want. Winning an election is a means to an end. That end is the principles we support becoming the principles that govern our nation. Elections themselves are not defining moments but the inevitable products of public debates. They are won and lost in the collective consciousness, not at the ballot box.

Margaret Thatcher defined the public discourse. Although she herself lost office, every government since, including those comprised of her political opponents, has pursued policies based on the ideology she espoused. Voters view the world according to the paradigm which she established.

Here's an example: most good economists will argue that the financial crisis was caused by a failure of the (private) financial sector. Yet all economic arguments in our public debate are based on the premise that we must cut back on the state. We don't discuss the logic behind this; it's become an irrefutable "fact" of British politics. The "Private = good/ State = bad" paradigm is unsupported by history or economics but every political party conforms to it because it is the paradigm which defines our public debate.

To win elections but, more importantly, to see its principles realised, a political party needs to define the debate. Unless it can do so (as I have argued before) it will always be arguing according to its opponent's terms and thus will always lose.

Ukip may prove to be of short-term electoral advantage to Labour. In the long term, it will push the public discourse further to the right. Labour may be in power after 2015, but its principles will not. A party that is content to maintain power by implementing ideals that it should fundamentally oppose does not deserve to exist.

In the United States some liberals privately welcomed the rise of the Tea Party when it appeared that its effect would be to make the Republican party permanently unelectable. Instead American public discourse was pushed to the right. GOP establishment figures like Karl Rove were made to appear centrist and reasonable, while Democrats were forced to refight old battles on abortion and race.

If Ukip continues on the road to mainstream acceptance, how long will it be before progressives in the UK are forced, once more, to defend hard-won legislation on equalities, employment rights or the minimum wage? Rather than arguing for a better future, the left will be forced to devote all its energy simply to prevent it becoming worse.

So how should the left respond? It's tempting to mollify Ukip voters, acknowledge that they have real concerns about immigration or human rights, in the hope of winning them back into the fold. But history should teach us that pandering to xenophobes only breeds more xenophobes.

Ukip supporters do not have reasonable concerns. The basis on which most positions in support of Ukip are founded are factually inaccurate. Supporting Ukip requires believing things that are simply not true. Pretending anything else will move the political discourse to a place where reality is permanently eclipsed by provocation.

There are real reasons that Ukip voters feel disenfranchised and these should be addressed, but not in the way they are expressed by Farage and co.

In the 2008 election, Obama For America destroyed John McCain's credibility by focusing on the ludicrous positions of his running mate, Sarah Palin. Her most famous statement, "I can see Russia from my house", came from the lips of Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey. Palin's politics were absurd so she was effectively laughed out of office. Ukip should be treated the same way. A party that bases its electoral appeal on ignorance and xenophobia should be a punch-line, not an election contender.

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Labour needs to get serious about Ukip. But the only way to do so successfully is not to take it seriously at all.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in international law and politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs for the Huffington Post. He tweets @SamFowles

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.