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Why we mustn’t let UKIP deflect us from the main task

The most important thing about last week’s election results will be how each party responds. We now have, for a while at least, a two and two half party political system: two parties may be in a position to form a majority government in the foreseeable future (though the Tories look very unlikely to be able to do so in 2015) and two half parties cannot hope to do so, though they can certainly influence outcomes. We’ve got to stay fixed on winning in 2015 but we won’t do that by trying to leap-frog UKIP and neither will anyone else..

Last week, UKIP’s main achievement was to damage the Tories and deliver seats to Labour right across the country in spite of an often disappointing performance, in target parliamentary seats and beyond. In Banbury, for example, a market town with 45,000 residents in rural Oxfordshire, Labour won all four county divisions with 39% of the vote to the Tories 30% and UKIP’s 24%, with Lib Dems and Greens on 3% and 5% respectively. Here Labour did double its share compared with 2009 but half of that increase came from squeezing the Lib Dem and Green votes, and boundary changes reduced the rural hinterland, but some did come from the Tories. That would not normally have been enough even in a very good year to turn the town completely red without the split in the right-wing vote.

As it happens, in Banbury, UKIP had stood in all those seats before. Even in 2009, the presence of UKIP almost gave Labour one seat. The increase in UKIP’s vote where it did stand in 2009 was far from consistent. In Banbury, it was up 7% from 17% to 24%, but in Chorley it was up just 0.6%. In Stevenage it was 11% up – but only 5% above the previous combined UKIP and BNP vote. The spectacular outcome this year is therefore not so much due to the rise in the UKIP vote as to the rise in the number of candidates fielded – a threefold increase to 1,727 in 2,362 contests. So large an increase for a party that in 2011 claimed a membership of 17,184 that it is not surprising that Nigel Farage has to admit they “don’t have the party apparatus in a very short space of time to fully vet 1,700 people” and that “one or two people will have slipped through the net that we’d rather not have had.”

The shortage of members, activists, cash and suitable candidates will continue to be a constraint on what UKIP can do. They’ve already been caught misusing EU money to fund their party organisation, two of their MEPs being involved in that scandal, and a third in the previous parliament was imprisoned for another fraud. In the future, for Westminster and Europe, their chopice of candidates may well be subject to rather closer scrutiny.

The Tory attack machine created by Lynton Crosby that was so evident against Labour last week on issues such as prisoners perks, immigrants’ access to public services and cutting aid to South Africa will no doubt be put to good use against UKIP.  Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far to the right the Tories will move. Matthew Parris argues in The Times (£) that “the Conservatives should take UKIP very seriously indeed. But as an enemy. They should move not an inch towards its agenda.” William Hague also warns against “a drastic change of course“. However, some Tory shift is certain – driven by the need to prevent defections of politicians, funders and activists.

The Lib Dems may be tempted to follow, to occupy any centre right space the Tories vacate and pick up any left Tory unhappy with the Tories’ increasing euroscepticism. On no account should Labour do so. There are three key reasons.

Firstly, whilst nationalist populist politics in a time of crisis is a medium term threat we must not ignore,  UKIP does not pose an immediate threat to Labour. As Anthony Wells put it at UK Polling Report:

The places UKIP tended to win the most seats were peripheral towns, outlying places, often the coast, often economic backwaters in a way, places like Boston, Spalding, Great Yarmouth, Thanet, Folkstone, the area around Bognor. Some of these areas, like the Norfolk and Lincolnshire Fens, are areas that have seen high levels of Eastern European immigration. Others are popular retirement locations and we know there is very strong correlation between age and voting UKIP.

John Mann at Labour List also provides on some very useful evidence from voter records in Bassetlaw: “Core Tory voters switched to UKIP… (but) the Labour core vote stayed Labour, with virtually no exceptions.” Public sector workers lost to Labour after 1997 are beginning to return, he says, and other lost Labour voters who did say they’d vote UKIP either didn’t, or have in any case also voted for other parties in the past. The fact is that, on last week’s performance, in 2015 we would win Stevenage and Cambridge, Harlow and Basildon,  Norwich and Lincoln, Hastings and Crawley, target seats north and south — according to Rallings & Thrasher an increase of 72 seats (compared with our target of 106).

Nor is it clear that county election results are a good indicator of performance at a general election. Local election results do reflect local conditions and these contests take place in Labour’s weakest areas. As the BBC puts it, they are “not meant to be a prediction of how people would vote in a general election – simply a projection of what the parties would get if everyone in the country had voted.” Even in relative Labour strongholds, there are plenty of Lib Dem Tory contests in some divisions where Lib Dems squeeze the Labour vote in local elections, but we squeeze their vote in nationals. The Lib Dems did very much better where they were incumbents, even increasing their share in many places since 2009. This does undermine the credibility of the BBC projection of last weeks results  — CON 25%, LAB 29%, LDEM 14%, UKIP 23% –and lends greater credibility, for example, to today’s YouGov results — CON 29%, LAB 39%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 16%.

Second, advocating right-wing positions on immigration and welfare, even if it was politically acceptable to advocate them which it is not, are unlikely to convince our former voters to return to Labour but would alienate leftish former Lib Dems who constitute so much of the increase in our support since 2010. They are an essential part of our coalition for victory in 2015. We would do better in response to UKIP’s success to advocate radical policies on security in the workplace, living standards and housing need, and to attack tax avoidance by the rich. Diane Abbott and others are right to be attacking scapegoating of immigrants by Tories and UKIP alike. What we do need is more attention by trade unions to promoting positive progressive responses to concerns about immigration and welfare.

Thirdly, UKIP voters, and especially former Labour voters who are tempted to vote UKIP are essentially anti-politician voters. Lord Ashcroft in his report on UKIP published last December based on a large scale poll (of 20,066 adults) found that what most determined their liking for UKIP were such factors as believing “UKIP’s heart is in the right place”, “UKIP is on the side of people like me” and “UKIP shares my values”. The belief that “UKIP is best party on ‘defending Britain’s interests in Europe'” accounted for only 8% of what makes them more likely to consider UKIP, that “controlling immigration was the most important issues facing Britain” only 6% and that UKIP is the best party on “reforming welfare to stop scroungers and cut benefit dependency” only 4%.

Like other former Labour voters who have stopped voting Labour, these anti-politician voters are going to be hard to win back. They will certainly not be won back by choosing policies on the basis of triangulation. They are most likely to be won back when we are in government pursuing radical policies which make a real difference to them people like them. No-one should feel comfortable about the prospect of winning in 2015 with as little as 35% of the vote like we did under Blair in 2005, but restoring trust in Labour and making change happen in the future is going to depend far more on winning people over in government when pursuing bold, radical policies very different from those of New Labour than on anything we say in advance of the election.

One Comment

  1. Matty says:

    Excellent article Jon, you should write more often.

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