Ukip's ascent has sharpened Labour's immigration divide

The clash between those who want a tougher stance, and those who want to maintain a liberal approach, is intensifying. 

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The Tories lost a seat last night and Labour held one, but, to the ire of the opposition, much of the media scrutiny is falling on it today. For this, there is a simple explanation. As one Labour source put it to me earlier, the Tories' defeat to Ukip in Clacton was already "priced in". After an early poll showed defector Douglas Carswell more than 44 points ahead, the only question was how great his margin of victory would be. 

By contrast, no one anticipated just how close the Heywood and Middleton race would be. Even last night, Labour was briefing that it had held the seat by around 2,000 votes. It ended up just 617 ahead. This near-death experience has chastened a party already morose after losing the conference season. When the Commons returns from recess next week, expect MPs to angrily demand an inquest from the leadership into how Labour came so close to defeat (with impeccable timing, Ed Miliband is addressing the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night). 

As Anoosh reported yesterday, there was anger within the party at the handling of the Heywood campaign. One Labour source told her: "Ukip have been allowed to run this dirty campaign and gain traction for it, while some [Labour MPs in the north] have been pushing to talk about immigration, and Ukip's popularity, for a long time. It's just ignored by Ed Miliband. He didn't even mention immigration in his speech [to party conference]. All he did was make a pointless dig at the Daily Mail."

The likely consequence of Ukip's surge will be to sharpen the divide within Labour over how to handle the radioactive issue of immigration. For some, the rise of the Farageists is proof of the need for the party to dramatically rethink its stance. MP and former minister Frank Field told me earlier: "They don't believe our main campaign about living standards because immigration is pushing down wages and they cannot believe that our leadership cannot make the link between the two." Field was one of seven working class Labour MPs to sign a recent letter urging Miliband to commit a future government to seeking to restrict migration from poorer EU member states. 

But for others, the continued growth of Ukip is a symptom of the political class's failure to challenge the party head on. London-based MPs, in particular, argue that Labour canot afford to meet Farage "in the middle", and must unambiguously reject what they regard as his xenophobic and even racist agenda. 

Others emphasise the need for a more radical economic agenda to clearly differentiate the party from the New Labour era. One source told me: "It's the right and Blair's fault that Ukip are hurting us in places like Heywood. What unites these voters is that they think Labour and the Tories are all the same. All centrist, middle class Londoners who know nothing about the real world." 

In a similar vein, Diane Abbott wrote in a piece for the Guardian: "Whenever you mentioned core Labour voters you were dismissed. New Labour bigwigs insisted that those voters “had nowhere else to go”. Well now they are finding somewhere else to go: the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and Ukip.

"But, back in the New Labour era, the party sacrificed everything to chasing a relatively small number of swing voters in middle England: it presented itself as an organisation speaking at working people rather than for them. Ambitious, young Westminster-based special advisers were parachuted into Labour heartland seats and policies that might actually appeal to core Labour voters, like bringing the railways back into public ownership, were dumped." 

What all agree on is that the current strategy has to change. To maintain the confidence of his party, Miliband will need to demonstrate that he grasps as much. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.