On 3 December, Jeremy Corbyn faces his first significant electoral test as Labour leader – the by-election in Oldham West and Royton, which has been triggered by the death of the veteran left-winger Michael Meacher. On the surface, this seat should be no cause for concern for Labour: Mr Meacher retained it in this year’s general election with a majority of 14,738. But there was a warning for Labour in May and it came from Ukip, which jumped from fifth (in 2010) to second place. Last year Labour had a shock when, in a by-election, it held the adjacent seat of Heywood and Middleton by only 617 votes from Ukip, which jumped in popularity by 32 points.
Many will argue that the situation is very different now: that the forward march of the “people’s army” was halted when it ended up winning only one seat in Westminster and its leader, Nigel Farage, failed to be elected in Thanet South. That is only half the story: nearly four million people voted for Ukip in the general election. Under a proportional system rather than first-past-the-post, the party would have ended up with at least 80 MPs. For too long, the conventional political wisdom on the left was that Ukip was a party of the far right and thus largely a Conservative problem, born out of David Cameron’s hesitancy to grant a referendum on continued British membership of the European Union. No one on the left now seriously believes this to be the case.
As Owen Jones notes in this week’s issue, Labour is vulnerable to Ukip because many of its supporters are not libertarians like its sole MP, Douglas Carswell, but disaffected former Labour voters. On many social issues, Ukip supporters report broadly left-wing views. They do not worry about the state interfering too much in their lives; instead, they fear the state is not doing enough to protect them and their families from the havoc being wreaked by the forces of free-market globalisation. They see freedom of movement inside the EU (as well as wider immigration from outside the EU) as driving down wages and driving up competition for housing, school places, and maternity and health services; the overall economic benefits of migration can be abstract for those struggling at the bottom of society, whereas the downsides are only too visible in people’s lives.
What is Labour’s answer to this? It has to be smarter than implying such views are reactionary or racist, or that they are the result of media indoctrination. London lifestyle liberalism will take the party only so far.
Globalisation has certainly benefited Britain, and we believe in the open society and the free movement of people. But one must acknowledge, too, just how many have been left behind or defeated by globalisation: consider the plight of the coal miners in our report on page 30. The British coal industry has been devastated by cheaper imports from the United States, Colombia, Russia and elsewhere; and the miners, like many manufacturing workers, feel let down by their government.
Consider also the steelworkers of Redcar. More than 1,700 lost their jobs at the Thai-owned SSI UK steel plant on Teesside (partly because China floods the market with subsidised steel), just as George Osborne was preparing to underwrite Chinese funding of British infrastructure projects, such as the building of a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
Similarly, in the debate about Trident, many of the trade unions support the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent not for strategic defence purposes, but for economic reasons: where will middle-aged workers in Faslane on the River Clyde or Barrow-in-Furness find jobs to replace those lost in the event of unilateral disarmament?
This is an era of tremendous political volatility. Support for Labour in Scotland crumbled like a rotten tooth when the party came under sustained assault from the SNP. Something similar could easily happen in the north of England, where Labour’s support is resilient but shallow. The task for Labour MPs is to address the challenges of globalisation without resorting to the sterile language of abstraction. They can talk all they wish about “inequality” or “rewriting Clause Four”, as Liam Byrne proposed this past week, but such language is unlikely to resonate with core Labour voters, who want more than analysis: they want protection. Without it, they will remain susceptible to Ukip’s rhetoric and glib answers.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe