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30 November 2016

Don’t panic – Paul Nuttall as Ukip leader could be the best thing to happen to Labour

A genuine working-class challenge will force Labour to reconnect with its historic purpose, argues MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk.

By Simon Danczuk

Seriously, what’s with all the doom and gloom? After a long and entertaining run of pantomime Ukip infighting, the election of their third leader in as many months seems to have spooked some of my Labour colleagues.

“It’s clear to me that the Ukip fox is in the Labour henhouse,” warns Dan Jarvis. While other Labour MPs speak of the “clear and present danger” Nuttall presents and the need to adopt ultra-local tactics as the “only way to survive”. In a typical massive kneejerk reaction, there is already talk of Ukip “replacing” Labour in the north.

At a time when Ukip donors are deserting the party and they’ve lost 14,000 members in the last year, this all sounds like a bit of an overreaction to me – and perhaps it’s time to consider another perspective.

Paul Nuttall is the best thing that could happen to Labour.

Yes, you heard right. Christmas has come early.

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It’s pretty obvious which way the political winds are blowing these days. The collapse of David Cameron’s liberal conservatism, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election are ominous harbingers. Many believe the revolt against liberalism is just warming up. Today’s political headwinds could well turn into tomorrow’s tornado unless the left gets its act together fast and presents a progressive alternative that can compete with right-wing populism. We urgently need a patriotic, future-facing story to tell, where everyone has a stake in our country’s success, hard work is rewarded and no one is left behind.

We simply don’t have that story at the moment. But if we’re to face a genuine working-class challenge from Paul Nuttall’s Ukip, I sense that we may just snap out of our placard-waving, virtue-signalling comfort zone and start to remember our historic purpose to support working-class people and values.

In the aftermath of the Democrats’ devastating defeat to Trump, one of the most interesting developments in America has been the startling candour and electric debate about the left’s failings. When even veteran socialist Bernie Sanders admits he’s “deeply humiliated” that his party can no longer talk to working-class people, you realise just how bad a place the left is in.

Perhaps the most articulate of these voices is the Californian writer Joan Williams who has warned that elites on both sides of the Atlantic will have to give up “class cluelessness” if they want to survive. Williams’ argument is that progressives’ obsession with prioritising cultural issues infuriates working-class people whose chief concerns are economic. She’s bang on the money.

“We write off white working-class anger as beneath our notice at our peril,” wrote Williams in the Financial Times last week. “Weimar Germany taught us how that ends – badly.”

Many are still not alive to this anger and it’ll take some time before it gets through to the no-platform-safe-space-cosy-echo-chamber that insulates large swathes of the left from a rapidly-changing political reality.

But if an alternative figure appears that the working class can rally around then this reality will fast dawn on even the most die-hard denier.

It’s too early to tell whether this person is Paul Nuttall. He’s not known as being a particularly impressive performer, but he has made it abundantly clear that he’s after blue-collar votes and will pursue a nationalist, anti-elite agenda.

In the current climate, that could be a very rich seam to mine. If he can survive Ukip’s self-destructive tendency and build some momentum, he could give Labour a genuine reason to rethink its mission.

Not since John Major boasted of his Brixton roots and stood on his soapbox has Labour been attacked by a working-class leader. That 1992 general election loss to Major’s blue-collar Conservatism made Labour wake up to the reality of the world at the time. It forced the party to adapt, as we must do again to changing times. We can’t wait another four years before reality bites.

A kick in the balls by Nuttall’s Ukip could save us all a lot of time. It could also be just the medicine Labour needs to wise up to the class cluelessness that’s not only holding us back in the polls but keeping us from fulfilling our founding purpose.