How Labour can prevent core voters defecting to Ukip
Almost every by-election that I can remember has led to pundits intoning “British politics will never be the same again”. It may be that the Clacton and Heywood & Middleton by-elections have indeed changed British politics forever. But it may also be the case that Ukip has momentarily replaced the Lib Dems as the dustbin for mid-term protest votes. The real threat to the Labour party is that we will be stampeded into moving right on race, immigration and welfare in response to the alleged Ukip threat.
Voices on these issues have been raised within the Labour party for some time, many of them from within the shadow cabinet. For them, these byelections present a glittering opportunity to pressure a reluctant Ed Miliband into a set of “Ukip lite” policies on race, migration etc.
The proponents of a rightward shift on immigration do say one thing that I agree with. It is indeed true that the working class in Labour areas is increasingly alienated from the Labour party. But what the right forgets to mention is that this process began under their hero, Tony Blair. I was a member of the national executive in the 1990s era of New Labour supremacy. Whenever you mentioned core Labour voters you were dismissed. New Labour bigwigs insisted that those voters “had nowhere else to go”. Well now they are finding somewhere else to go: the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and Ukip.
But, back in the New Labour era, the party sacrificed everything to chasing a relatively small number of swing voters in middle England: it presented itself as an organisation speaking at working people rather than for them. Ambitious, young Westminster-based special advisers were parachuted into Labour heartland seats and policies that might actually appeal to core Labour voters, like bringing the railways back into public ownership, were dumped.
The Scottish independence referendum revealed that this strategy had been tested to destruction. Hundreds and thousands of Labour voters in areas including 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 actually standing up for ordinary working people.
In the Heywood & Middleton byelection, Ukip ran the Labour party very close. But we had an excellent candidate in Liz McInnes, and we held on to our share of the vote. Labour voters did not flock to Ukip. It was Tory and Lib Dem supporters who went over. And, on a low turnout, Ukip was able to produce a tight result.
Nobody is suggesting complacency about Ukip. One Labour voter switching to Ukip is one too many. But the answer is partly to combat the problem doorstep by doorstep. And we have to fashion an offer that has real appeal to working-class voters. For instance we should allow local authorities to borrow to build genuinely affordable social housing; we should bring the railways back into public ownership and we should introduce a statutory living wage in the first months of a Labour government. But a helter-skelter rush to the right on race, immigration and welfare would be disastrous.
Choosing to fight the 2015 general election on a Ukip agenda will not work. And the danger is that, in trying to move right on immigration, we will alienate other voters. Many of the seats Labour needs to win in order to claim victory in 2015 are only in play because of the number of black and ethnic minority voters in them. But Labour cannot, at 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 progressive deal that speaks to their real self-interest.