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Labour needs to make an offer to working class voters, not a shift to the right

enoch powell & nigel farageIn the wake of the Clacton and Heywood & Middleton by-election results, the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble are plunging into a frenzy of speculation. In particular, they are revelling in making each other’s flesh crawl with hysteria about the UKIP menace. Within the Labour Party the cry is to “respond” to UKIP by moving right on welfare and immigration. But, before getting swept away with this narrative, it might be useful to inject some facts.

First, working class alienation from the Labour Party is real, but it entirely predates the rise of UKIP.  It actually has its origins in the New Labour era. It is ironic that the people, who are now most vehement about re-connecting with our core voters, are Labour right wingers of the New Labour persuasion. I served on the National Executive of the Labour Party in the nineteen nineties when New Labour was in all its pomp and power. But, whenever you raised core Labour voters then, you were dismissed. Those people you were told “had nowhere else to go“.

So New Labour presented itself as an organisation speaking at working people rather than for them. Ambitious young Westminster-based special advisors were parachuted into Labour heartland seats. And policies that would appeal to core Labour voters, like restoring trade union rights and freedoms, were jettisoned in favour of chasing after a relatively small number of swing voters in Middle England constituencies.

The Scottish independence referendum revealed that this strategy has been tested to destruction. Hundreds and thousands of core Labour voters in areas like Glasgow abandoned the party in order to support the “yes” campaign. And this happened not because these people were “blood and soil” nationalists, but because they despaired of the Labour Party standing up for ordinary working people.

In the case of the Heywood and Middleton by-election, it is worth remembering that Labour held on to its share of the vote. So it was not a question of Labour voters going over to UKIP. Instead Tory and Lib Dem supporters went over to UKIP. And on a low turn out that enabled UKIP to run Labour extremely close.

Nobody is suggesting complacency about UKIP. One Labour voter switching to UKIP is one too many. But the answer is partly to combat them doorstep by doorstep. And we also have to fashion an offer which has real appeal to working class voters black and white. Amongst other things we need to allow local authorities to borrow to build genuinely affordable social housing. We should say that we will bring the railways back into public ownership and we need to introduce a mandatory living wage in the first months of a Labour government.

But a helter skelter rush to the right on race, immigration and welfare will not work. For one thing, if we choose to fight the next General Election on a UKIP agenda, Labour will never be able to move far enough to the right on these issues to suit UKIP voters. And the danger is that, in trying to move right on immigration, we will alienate other voters. There is a series of outer London marginals that Labour needs to win in order to claim victory in 2015. But these seats are only in play because of the increased number of BME voters in them. Labour cannot, at one and the same time, be in Thurrock wringing its hands about immigrants and be in Mitcham and Morden begging the same immigrants to vote for them.

Much of the UKIP narrative on race and migration is nonsense on stilts. We need to counter that narrative, but also offer core Labour voters a concrete progressive offer which speaks to their real self-interest.

6 Comments

  1. Annette says:

    unattributed?

  2. Shirley Knott says:

    If the electorate ia alienated and disillusioned it is in large part the “wooing” of the swing-voter in just a percentage of constituencies. That aint democracy, and demonstrates that FPTP isn’t either. Back of the envelope wild promises (soon forgotten or reneged on) to the few swingers do not make for an adequate manifesto! The major parties are too much like corporations themselves in recent decades, offering only City/donor approved manifestos, unresponsive to the demands of the electorate. Too much political space has been effectively privatised.
    We need genuine electoral reform to get genuine political reform!

  3. David Melvin says:

    The early signs are that Labour are going to follow the UKIP agenda. As the son of an immigrant Ed should know better.

    1. Robert says:

      When your desperate to keep your job you will tend to do things like this, it does seem labour are now going to follow UKIP on Immigration, between following the Tories on Austerity I cannot wait top see what they have to follow with the Liberals.

  4. swatantra says:

    I say NO to pandering to any racist faction. Its been shown in the past that demagogiues like Mosely and Pwell have been successful in drawing out the worst in the working classes.

  5. Shirley Knott says:

    What a bigoted statement. As if there’s no “worst” to be drawn out of the other, “better” classes?

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