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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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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