Nigel Farage addresses the press. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Look behind you: Ukip could do yet more damage to Labour

Labour could find themselves squeezed on both sides by Ukip and the Conservatives.

In the immediate aftermath of Labour’s disastrous general election performance, former colleagues have been right to complain about the Party’s failure to appeal to the political middle ground. They have understandably criticised Labour’s apparent determination to ignore the views of the business community. They have acknowledged that general elections in Britain cannot be won without support from across the board.

Those former colleagues have tended to put the solution in terms of a choice – that a new Labour Leader should choose to go back to the future in repositioning the party’s policies to appeal to the aspirational members of the working class as well as to those middle class voters concerned about wealth creation but also having a social conscience. Tony Blair’s appeal ran right across the traditional classes which is why the party he lead won three General Elections.

So far so obvious – but does the next Labour Leader really have the luxury of choice? Labour not only failed in its appeal to the aspirational; it also faced a formidable threat to its traditional working class vote – one that has not in fact suddenly materialised with the rapid growth of UKIP. Over very many years there has been a persistent decline in the turnout of what historically would have been described as traditional working class voters.

No-one has ever seriously suggested that I might be a Marxist – but there has been a fundamental change in the economic circumstances of the traditional working class that has produced a corresponding adjustment in their political decisions. References to the working class vote are now almost meaningless. The working class either includes nearly everyone – as David Cameron is seeking to demonstrate – or it describes what are today a rapidly reducing number of those engaged in manual labour.

The aspirational working class voter – those with skills and qualifications working in modern manufacturing - have attitudes and values little different from the traditional middle classes. They often live on the same suburban housing estates, travel to the same holiday destinations and have the same university ambitions for their children. Remember Neil Kinnock’s memorable speech at the Labour Party Conference after Labour’s defeat in 1987, where he supposedly quoted Ron Todd, then Leader of the Transport Union:

What do you say to a docker who... owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella?”

“You don’t say... Let me take you out of your misery brother”.

The story of the skilled working class is one of success as their abilities are often in short supply meaning that they can usually get work and often at higher wages in globally competitive businesses.

That success was shared by many manual workers until towards the end of the twentieth century. Miners if they worked five shifts could be earning £40,000. They bought their own homes and went on holidays abroad. They were the aristocrats of the Labour movement; organised and disciplined, members of trade unions and mostly voting Labour.

But the collapse and virtual disappearance in Britain of the mining, shipbuilding and steel industries has massively reduced the demand for unskilled work. The unskilled sons of those who earned good money from manual labour have found it increasingly difficult to find anything other than short term minimum wage work. If they are lucky they work in warehouses or compete for traditionally female jobs in supermarkets. They are no longer in trade unions, they struggle to make ends meet and through the 1990s and into the 21st Century many of them stopped voting. To borrow another Marxist term, they were alienated – exactly the kind of voter on a council estate who would tell canvassers that “you’re all the same - you’re all as bad as each other”.

When I first stood for Parliament in Ashfield in 1992 in what was then still a traditional working class Labour constituency dominated by collieries and the textile trade, the General Election turnout was just over 80% and the Labour majority was almost 13,000. In the Labour landslide of 1997 the majority was over 22,000, although the turnout fell back to 70%. By 2010 with every colliery closed and the textile trade all but disappeared, the turnout had fallen to 57.3% and the Labour majority was just over 10,000. Not all of those not voting were traditional Labour supporters but clearly the great majority of them were.

Nevertheless Labour was still winning elections in its traditional areas and despite the abstention of many of its working class voters they were not taking their votes elsewhere. The low turnout explained why far fewer Labour votes were required to elect a Labour MP than MPs from other parties. – and indeed in 2015, Labour in its heartlands often increased its share of the vote as some former Liberal Democrat voters moved across or back. That is perhaps at least part of the explanation of what for some in 2015 was a ”core vote strategy”, assuming that Ukip would split the right, allowing Labour to win a parliamentary majority on a relatively small share of the popular vote.

Instead in 2015, Ukip appears to have done as much damage to Labour as to the Conservatives. Given the economic changes this cannot be seen as surprising. As manual jobs disappeared, Labour had little to offer those that struggled to find regular well paid work. For a man whose father and grandfather had had well paid jobs underground or in a steel works or shipyard, low paid temporary warehouse jobs, if they could get them were not a substitute for what was previously perceived as real work. Moreover in addition to the already difficult task of finding any job, an influx of highly skilled and  motivated East Europeans was the final straw. Low wages in Britain are still significantly higher than high wages in Poland.

The big change in 2015 was therefore that Ukip, previously seen as a fringe or protest party, was setting out exactly what the socially conservative unskilled working class wanted to hear. No more immigration, leave the EU, cut back on benefits for foreigners. Everyone who has ever knocked on doors for Labour has heard those views from Labour supporters at every election. But because in the past those voters had nowhere else to go politically those inconvenient opinions were essentially ignored. Now those voters have a voice: a political party precisely reflecting their views. And in Ashfield their vote increased by 19.55% to over 10,000, just short of the Tory vote which has always been at around that figure.

The Ashfield result was also significant in other respects. The Labour majority was over 8000, significantly better than in 2010 when Labour was run close by a hard working Liberal Democrat – but well short of what would be expected in what is a traditional Labour area. The combined Conservative and Ukip vote was greater than Labour’s total. But most significantly the turnout was above 60%; suggesting that some at least of those voters who abstained in the past turned out to vote Ukip.

And that is why the next Labour Leader has no choice about appealing to the middle ground. It is difficult to see how Labour could adjust its principles to appeal to some of the most conservative, nationalist views around. It is also difficult to see what economic policies can fundamentally change the economic position of the unskilled. In the modern economy the unskilled are virtually unemployable. Labour has no choice other than to go on highlighting the importance of education and training. That is the only way out of the problem – but in truth the percentage leaving school without any qualifications at all has remained stubbornly unaffected by successive initiatives from all governments.

The real nightmare for the next Labour Leader is that the Tories continue to push their centre ground appeal to the skilled working class and that increasingly for the unskilled Ukip becomes the party of choice. If Tory voters in safe Labour seats recognise that and start to vote tactically, Labour would be in even bigger trouble than it is in today.

Geoff Hoon was the Labour MP for Ashfield from 1992 to 2010.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.