On a canvass yesterday evening around the ward of Rochester East, in the constituency facing a by-election triggered by the defection of its MP to Ukip, the Labour MP and former cabinet minister Alan Johnson was helping out his Labour colleagues by knocking on some doors.
He received a warm welcome from most of those who opened their doors to him in this Labour ward, part of a constituency otherwise experiencing a Ukip surge and increasingly vulnerable Conservative representation. Indeed, the first constituent he spoke to was a former postman Johnson had represented as an official in his union, the Union of Communication Workers, having famously worked as a postman himself before his time in parliament.
However, it is Ukip that is gaining ground in this constituency, with the party recently seeing a 13-point poll lead. Mark Reckless, who is running as Ukip’s candidate there, and an army of Ukip activists, are campaigning on the subject of EU migrants, promising to take control of our borders via an EU exit.
Joining him on his canvas, I asked Johnson his view of how Labour should counter this. He told me:
We can’t ignore this [Ukip], we can’t be complacent about it, but nor must we run after Ukip votes on the basis that what Ukip are arguing is fundamentally, diametrically-opposed to where Labour stands on issues like fair taxation, fairer society, a more equal society, the eradication of poverty, controlled immigration – which has been good for this country.
He warned that Labour must be more vocal in its support for Britain’s EU membership:
And certainly on Europe we’ve got to start making the argument for Europe much more than we have done. We seemed to stop making the argument with the single currency, as if when you argue for Europe, you’re arguing for a single currency. Well, we kept Britain out of the single currency, but we’re very sure that we can influence Europe in a way that Cameron hasn’t even tried to do. So it’s time for us to stand up . . . [make] the argument again for Britain to have influence in a Europe that we know has to change, but the exit door’s not the answer.
Away from the childish shenanigans of Cameron, who really hasn’t learnt the ABC of negotiation, [we must] say we’re the answer to solving some of those problems, including some of the issues around free movement, which in a proper dialogue amongst allies, without threats, I think we’d find a lot of support around Europe for changes to the system, now that there’s 28 member states and not six. We have to make that argument without chasing a Ukip vote, trying to out-Ukip Ukip. We’ll leave that to the Tories.
It’s significant that in his support for the EU – he is a keen member of the cross-party group British Influence in Europe – Johnson leaves room for Labour having a crack at the renegotiation of freedom of movement that has so plagued Cameron during his premiership. Johnson appears to be advocating a diplomatic approach to looking closer at the number of EU migrants entering Britain from new member states, and sees this as a job for Labour.