Why Labour's anti-Ukip strategy is cleverer than it seems

Focusing on education, housing and jobs – not just immigration – is more likely to win Ukip defectors back. 

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On 23 January 2013 David Cameron was the man who had “shot Ukip’s fox”. The Prime Minister had finally done what other politicians were failing to do. He had understood Ukip voters’ concerns. By pledging an In-Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, he had given Ukip defectors a compelling reason to return to the Conservative Party.

Except, as we now know, he hadn’t. Nearly two years on, Ukip is still averaging 14 per cent in the polls (track them on May2015) – a third more than when Cameron gave his big speech. The more that Cameron and the Conservatives have talked about the EU and immigration, the more that Ukip have risen in the polls. This should not be surprising. Tub-thumping on immigration tells voters they are right to be worried about it. In the process, it legitimises Ukip: if even the political class accepts that immigration is such a problem, voters might think, Ukip really do have a point.

Labour’s approach – denouncing the Tories for trying to “out-Ukip Ukip” while simultaneously hardening its own position on immigration – has proved equally disastrous. Labour has talked about immigration far more in the last two years of the Parliament than the first two. It has only helped Ukip, who have gone from taking one Labour supporter for every nine Conservative ones before 2013 to six Labour supporters for every nine Tories since.

So a different approach from the Conservatives and Labour to Ukip is overdue. A leaked Labour document suggests that the party is doing just that. "Immigration is the issue people most often cite when explaining support for Ukip,” MPs are told. But they are warned: “It does not however follow that campaigning on immigration issues and emphasising our policies in our conversations with electors is always the correct response." This is because “it is unhelpful to raise the salience of immigration as an issue." Instead, MPs are advised to focus on "moving the conversation on" to topics like the NHS, housing and jobs.

This has a powerful logic. Ukip does worst in areas, like London, that have had the most immigration. Ukip strongholds have not been “swamped” by immigration, to use Michael Fallon’s regrettable term. They have had little of it – and, as a result, their populations are not swelling but declining.

Great Grimsby is the seat that Labour is most likely to lose to Ukip. When I visited the constituency, people expressed concern about immigration. Besides the odd Polish shop on the high street, it is hard to see how it is affecting them: the non-white population is just 2.9 per cent. Concern about immigration, then, seems more of a proxy for wider anger – a feeling that they have been let down and left behind. Labour’s problem is that, as one man who will vote for Farage told me, the party “doesn’t seem to do anything for the people of Grimsby.” Another Farage supporter said she was “willing to try anything” to help her husband get a full-time job after five years without a steady job. If Labour is to win such people back, it will be by convincing them that it cares for them and has solutions to the lack of housing and good jobs. It will not be by making more promises on immigration that, because of the lack of trust in politicians, will never be believed.

Not everyone agrees. That the document has been leaked – which is hugely embarrassing – hints as much. Frank Field has described it as “an April Fools' Day pack,” saying that “campaigning on immigration is exactly what Ukip wants us to do." But what is his alternative? It is to mention immigration even more. It is the politics of ‘one more heave’, intensifying the anti-Ukip strategy that, for the Conservatives and Labour, has failed so spectacularly.

Labour polls poorly on immigration. Voters are right not to believe them when they try to ramp up anti-immigration rhetoric: it reeks of inauthenticity. Making immigration the central plank of Labour’s election campaign would be disastrous. If the importance of immigration is rammed down voters’ throats, they will only be more tempted to vote for the real anti-immigration thing: Ukip. 

Focusing on education, housing and jobs – and looking like it has solutions – is more likely to win Ukip defectors back. So is copious unglamorous campaigning. As the anti-Ukip document emphasised, winning former Labour supporters back is “a labour intensive activity, requiring determined activity from local campaigns to listen to and understand the reasons behind this disillusion.”

There is no silver bullet against the Ukip threat. But campaigning on the issues on which Ukip is strongest will only make them more salient – and create the impression of Labour desperately following Farage. Still, no one seems to have told Ed Miliband as much: the Labour leader has just given his fourth major speech on immigration.

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