The Rise of UKIP is Labour’s Problem Too

It can only be defeated if we too promise an in/out referendum on EU membership and fair, not free, movement of labour in Europe

Features UK Politics
Bursting Labour's bubble: Nigel Farage's UKIP appears to offer clarity of language and purpose, which appeals to Labour's core voters (photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

How do you deal with a problem like UKIP? Let’s start by defining the problem. It’s not so much UKIP that’s the problem, but the conditions which have allowed it to become a political force. And it’s not the first time in the history of political parties that this kind of thing has happened.

How do you solve a problem like UKIP? First, stop feeding the beast and then make sure you do something about the conditions which allowed this to happen.
Let’s cast our mind back to the SDP in the 1980s, the nationalist parties and the SNP in particular, and maybe the Greens next. It starts with a specific issue and, before you know it, gathers momentum and attracts anti-establishment protest votes as well. The main political parties start by feeling “first past the post proof”, then go into panic mode before they acknowledge that they had better sit down and work out why the electorate is abandoning them.

In the case of UKIP there was an interim phase, best described as “let’s ridicule the party and then hurl abuse at the people who vote for them.” Labour thought it was just a problem for the Tories, which at first it was and to some extent still is — but the UKIP vote has now eaten into the electoral territory of all parties.

What were the conditions which created UKIP?

The role of the big political parties is to bring together large groupings of people who broadly share a set of values and turn these principles into actions. They are organisations as well as movements and an often overlooked function is to bring into the fold the extremes on the Right and the Left of the political spectrum. It used to be the case that from their broad ideological principles voters could roughly predict the direction of policies. Labour, committed to the collective and internationalist, would stress equality of opportunity as well as striving for fair outcomes. The Tories, defenders of the nation state, would place more emphasis on individual responsibility.

But now that we all subscribe to social market economics, and the political process has become more managerial than ideological, the definitions have blurred. Vote for me because, whatever it is, I’ll do it better/more cheaply/more quickly than the other lot. Whether it is Labour, Conservative or the Liberal Democrats (who themselves are a coalition of economic liberals to the right of the Tories and social liberals to the left of Labour), they have all increasingly shaped their policies on the basis of what the other side is doing, rather than following their own core values and beliefs.

We politicians spend a lot of time knocking on doors, sending out letters and making phone calls to identify those who will vote for us. We do this not just in the run-up to elections — it has become almost our main activity all the time. It’s easy to forget that between elections we have to persuade people, to give them reasons to vote for us. The process of persuasion has to take place on the doorstep and in daily conversations, not just in the media. That’s how movements spread the message. And you win elections by holding on to the people who voted for you last time, and persuading a few more to do so this time.

Enter UKIP, a new and initially single-issue party which appears to offer clarity of language and purpose. It has the air of authenticity and for good measure promises to give “them up there” a good kicking. And before you know it, its ranks of voters have spread beyond those who believe in leaving the European Union to include a fair number of others who simply think, “Well, why not? Let’s give them a go.”

Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party was a bit like that. While the Tories would have lost the 1997 general election to Labour in any event, it is now generally assumed that Goldsmith cost the Tories some 23 seats. Without the Referendum Party the landslide would have been smaller and Labour might not have offered a referendum on the single currency, but Goldsmith died and his party disappeared after 1997.

UKIP has gone well beyond that. At one point in the 1980s the SDP looked as if it was going to “break the mould” of conventional politics. It’s worth remembering that the “Gang of Four” actually split with Labour over Europe. The SDP might have kept Labour out of government for longer than was necessary but it did force the Labour Party to change, adapting itself as a movement into “New Labour”. The debate over Clause IV was a reflection of that process, rather than the essence of the change. The people around Tony Blair were effective operators but they understood that slogans must encapsulate larger insights.

Nigel Farage’s party is forcing the other political parties to examine themselves but it’s not doing it in an ideological and inclusive way. Rather, UKIP is doing it in a manner that feeds discontent, despair and division. In that sense it is more of a threat to the Conservatives as they are forced back onto the territory which made them the “nasty party”, something they have been trying to overcome. The whole Cameron project, beginning with Vote Blue, Go Green, was to detoxify the Tory brand.

The threat to Labour as a political party is less ideological. On a practical level a significant section of our core voters feel that UKIP is talking about the things which worry them. They fear that Labour has either forgotten them or doesn’t care any more. They want to be given a fair chance, they don’t like having their wages undercut and they hate it when people get something for nothing. What makes them angry is when, rather than listening to their concerns, we suggest that they are being racist. But they don’t support UKIP’s threats to the NHS nor the abolition of inheritance tax at a time when public services are being cut. Labour should find it easier to reverse the drift away from the party.

There are some things the big parties should not do in response to UKIP. This isn’t about individual party political advantage but a defence of the concept of people’s parties which embrace and represent broad strands of political views — mass parties underpinned by grass-roots movements.

We hear calls for English Votes for English Laws. There used to be one or two isolated voices on the Tory benches calling for an English Parliament, but virtually none on the Labour side. After the Scottish referendum (and the promised increased devolution of power while keeping the Barnett funding formula), a form of representation limited to English MPs offers superficial attractions. For the Conservatives it would remove the Scottish Labour vote and hold out the prospect of a Tory England. Those concerned about constitutional structures wonder if the “unionist” model should give way to a federal structure.

There is a debate to be had here. But it must take place in the context of the unfinished business of devolution in England outside London, not because we are running scared of a fourth party in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Labour responded to the rise of the SNP in Scotland by offering greater devolution of power, including a Scottish parliament. The newly-created devolved administrations all use proportional systems to elect their members. The European elections are run on a closed list PR system. It is inconceivable that a new form of assembly representing the English constituencies could be established which did not also embrace an element of proportionality.

Let’s take a look at the national votes in the 2010 general election, under first past the post. UKIP’s 919,000 votes did not give it a single Westminster MP. Nor did the BNP’s 564,000 votes. The SNP’s 491,000 votes resulted in six Westminster MPs, 165,000 Plaid Cymru votes produced three MPs and the Greens got one MP on 285,000 votes. By contrast, in the European elections, with proportional representation, the fact that more people voted for UKIP than for any other party is reflected in its 24 MEPs, compared to the Conservatives’ 19 and Labour’s 20. UKIP may do well or badly in 2015, but it is shaping the 2015 manifestos of the major parties.

How should the Labour Party react? Pollsters and election strategists will go on poring over lists of marginal constituencies and crunching the numbers. Four-party politics will make national predictions more difficult. Necessary as all this is, Labour should focus on its message. And here Labour is in better shape than many think. Fair movement of labour across the EU is something we can agree on. What grates is getting something for nothing or that the numbers coming in are of such magnitude that social cohesion is at risk. Insisting on the minimum wage, paying tax, focusing on working conditions — this should not just be Labour’s strong territory, but also the trade unions’. UKIP plays into fear of “the other” — do we really know who is here and can we control our borders? Labour must make more of effective border controls, tracking over-stayers, catching people traffickers, and deporting illegal immigrants and those who abuse the system. 

Promising to negotiate EU migration quotas, as David Cameron has done, is something of a red herring. Free movement of people within the EU is the founding principle which distinguished EFTA from the Common Market. Many Labour voters are first- or second-generation immigrants themselves. They understand when we make the case that in today’s global economy people move from country to country, and that this can be a force for good. 

It is curious that Labour has not been able to pull together the various strands of its policies. We have challenged those in power who abuse their positions, whether it is Rupert Murdoch or the big banks. We know that not only are things tough now but that they are likely to get worse in the foreseeable future. We have to focus on those things which disproportionately hit the poorest hardest — reduce energy prices, talk about a living wage rather than just a minimum wage, increase investment in housing. These policies are already in place.

After Labour’s three terms in government too many people still think that whatever is going wrong now must somehow have been our fault. Labour needs to state its values coherently and express them in a set of policies which tell a narrative which resonates. The threat to Labour comes from UKIP today but tomorrow it could come from the Greens. So let’s not overstate the threat of UKIP and not respond to every one of their moves in kind: let’s get back on the front foot and define what Labour stands for.

On Europe, we too should promise an in/out referendum. On immigration, we should be tough on border controls and focus on fair, rather than free, movement of labour. On the economy, we should make it clear that we know austerity has created whole new swathes of the working poor. They have a job, work all hours, but don’t earn enough to pay their increasing bills for energy, food and housing. It’s about a living wage, help with energy bills and creating more affordable housing. They need a Labour government to make life better.

On UKIP, we must challenge their policies head-on, rather than trying to outdo them, and spell out just what the NHS or the tax system would look like if they got their way. We should challenge them at every step and treat them as if they were the Tories, because that’s what they are.

I will go into the 2015 election promising, “I know things are tough and they are likely to get tougher. But I will fight for you at every turn because it simply can’t be right that those who are worst-off are hit the hardest.”