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Is Ukip’s rebranding working?

That voters see the party as more left-wing than the Conservatives shows why it can take support off Labour. 

Even Nigel Farage accepts that Ukip is nearing the limit of its appeal to disaffected former Conservatives. The party's ability to grow depends on its ability to take votes from Labour – hence Farage’s bluster about putting his tanks on Ed Miliband's lawn. There are signs that it is working, too. Before 2013, Ukip took only one Labour vote for every nine they took from the Conservatives. But since January 2013, Labour has lost six voters to Ukip for every nine that Ukip has taken from the Conservatives. 

The rebranding of Ukip has taken three forms. The party, for so long hopeless at campaigning, has learned from the Liberal Democrats about the importance of relentless campaigning in by-elections – and sheer opportunism, as with the recent attacks on Labour’s left flank. As a disproportionate number of by-elections this parliament have occurred in northern seats, Ukip has become well versed in attacking Labour.

Ukip has also shifted its policies – and especially which ones it chooses to emphasise. Privately, many leading figures within the party do not consider the NHS viable in its current form. But the party has chosen to oppose not only the current government’s reforms, but also New Labour’s. "The NHS is a battle for another day," one party source tells me, reflecting how Ukip has decided that opposing all reform of the health service is the most fertile source of votes. Such populism is detectable in other policies, too. Ukip has flirted with the "wag tax" (until Farage shot down the idea) and party figures are even floating renationalising the railways. "I do think that we should be considering, and there should be an open debate at the moment, whether we should have nationalisation or [run the railways] through an organisation like a co-op," Steven Woolfe, the party’s financial affairs and migration spokesman, recently told me.

Finally, there has been a change in personnel in the party. To undermine the caricature of the party as one of disillusioned shire Tories, Ukip has pushed forward figures like Woolfe, Diane James and Paul Nuttall, who each have working class credentials. It is a long way from the last election when the party was led by Lord Pearson, an Eton-educated life peer, although the defection of two privately-educated Conservative MPs could yet undermine Ukip’s appeal to Labour supporters.

Labour has decided that its general election attack on Ukip will be to present the party as "the Tories on speed," as a shadow cabinet member puts it. "We’ve found that’s what works best." But Labour’s problem, as a new Comres poll shows, is that the electorate don't quite agree. Asked to put leaders and parties on a left-right scale of 0-10, they put Farage (6.59) and Ukip (6.61) to the left of David Cameron (6.81) and the Conservative Party (6.91).

This is very significant. For some voters who consider the Conservatives too right-wing to support, Ukip is a more palatable option. Though Ukip is significantly to the right of the average voter, the poll suggests that the party’s repositioning – away from libertarianism and towards the populism of a leftist and rightist bent favoured by the most successful anti-immigration parties on the continent – is proving successful. Ukip’s judgement is that many former Conservatives fuelled by resentment of David Cameron are now in the party to stay, so it can shift leftwards to try and broaden its appeal without alienating them. Labour has been warned.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.