Look behind you: Ukip lies second in Labour's heartlands. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Look behind you: how Labour can avoid the threat of Ukip

Ukip did untold damage to Labour both in its heartlands and in the battlegrounds. What can be done about it?

If Labour is to recover from its disastrous defeat, it has to pay much greater attention to the forces of disengagement and alienation that are imperilling UK democracy and politics. Disillusionment with the political system has never been more damaging to the centre-left cause. Much attention has recently focused on the threat posed by the rise of the UK Independence Party. Ukip have not yet won a seat from Labour, but they are now in second place in dozens of 'heartland' Labour constituencies across Northern England and the Midlands. Understanding exactly why voters have drifted from a party of the traditional left to a party of the populist right will be crucial for Labour's electoral recovery.   

According to polling carried out by IpsosMORI for Policy Network, voters have defected to Ukip because they have manifestly lost faith in the conventional political system. Political disaffection is, of course, widespread in contemporary Britain. According to our survey, only one in 10 people believe politicians 'are out to do the best for their country'. Half of all voters think politicians are merely out for themselves. However, among Ukip voters, the figures are worse: just three per cent trust politicians' motives; seven out of 10 believe politicians are brazenly pursuing their own interests. Ukip supporters, as well as SNP voters, are far more likely to worry that their voice doesn't count in the decisions taken by local politicians: 61 per cent and 57 per cent, as against 38 per cent and 35 per cent among Conservative and Labour voters. 70 per cent of those who back Ukip believe they have little influence over national politicians; among Green voters, this figure rises to 80 per cent. Meanwhile, 83 per cent of Ukip voters believe the system of governing in Britain requires radical improvement and reform.  

This indicates that the role of political disengagement in driving Ukip support has been understated in much political commentary. The left have tended to blame economic factors for Ukip's rapid rise, notably increasing employment insecurity and downward pressure on living standards in the face of rapid globalisation, exposure to the European single market, and of course, rapid inward migration. The right, on the other hand, have focused on cultural identity as an explanation for the defection of mainstream voters. The liberal cosmopolitan mind-set of the ruling political elite and their refusal to acknowledge the importance of the nation and patriotism to citizen's identity has insidiously chipped away at support for the established parties. Of course, economics and culture are inevitably intertwined, while neither account fully recognises the extent of alienation from the political system, a key driver of Ukip's insurgency.     

Clearly, it would be churlish to dismiss the role of economic forces in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crash. Disengagement reflects a broader failure of the major political parties to evolve a new economic model in the aftermath of the crisis. All successful governing projects since the Second World War have offered voters the promise of economic security combined with rising material affluence: this was so for post-war corporatism, for Thatcherism (albeit accompanied by disruptive liberal reforms) and eventually, for New Labour. Today, however, no coherent programme is on offer, creating a seismic vacuum in political ideas. However, alienation cannot merely result from parties no longer delivering the 'bread and butter' of secure, well paid jobs, rising material living standards and increased personal consumption. Something is rotten at the heart of British democracy and politics itself.

To regain the initiative, parties like Labour will have to fashion a genuinely new politics, a theme so far absent from the party’s leadership debate. Labour has a particular responsibility given the electoral decimation of the Liberal Democrats in 2015: if Labour does not speak up for political reform, for constitutionalism, and for civil liberties – then who will? But it is also in Labour's electoral self-interest to win back disgruntled Ukip voters. Policy Network's recent study, 'The Populist Signal: Why politics and democracy need to change' by Claudia Chwalisz indicates the potential for democratic redesign and institutional renovation. This is not about more tinkering with political structures in Whitehall and Westminster, but enabling citizens to play a meaningful role in the governing process, while at the same time radically devolving power. Giving people a stake in decision-making is often dismissed as pandering to the affluent chattering classes. However, according to Policy Network’s poll, up to 70 per cent of Ukip voters would be prepared to participate in a local citizens' assembly. 54 per cent want to take part directly in a constitutional convention to consider the future of UK democracy. Elsewhere in the industrialised world, governments are experimenting with new forms of democratic involvement from citizen's juries and community assemblies, to the random selection of local political representatives.

The world is making the transition from an age of representative democracy to an age of participatory democracy. The process is uneven and at times unleashes contradictory forces, but the direction of travel is unmistakable. The left in Britain must ensure it is on the right side of history. In the wake of its terrible defeat in May, the party would do well to remember that titan of the post-war Labour government, Aneurin Bevan's, immortal phrase: 'The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away'.

Patrick Diamond is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London and a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Policy Network's report is 'The Populist Signal: Why politics and democracy need to change' by Claudia Chwalisz.            

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496