4:24 pm - October 12th 2014
We are back to the news cycle whereby Westminster freaks out over how to deal with the threat from UKIP. The political parties will respond with the same promises, soundbites and narratives. Then they’ll go back to existing plans until the next ‘crisis’.
Thrown in this debate are two academics – Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin – who have written about UKIP in a book and therefore invited regularly to offer their opinions. I’m reading it now and it contains some great research. But I have a problem with their political analysis, which I find increasingly simplistic. Here is why:
Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin (RF+MG) have a narrative that goes like this:
Working class voters are natural Labour territory. But the party is complacent about the danger they face from UKIP and that’s why UKIP is doing so well in the north. Why, for example, didn’t Labour increase their share of the vote in Middleton last night? Why are poorer voters struggling with austerity not going to Labour?
"Its a by-election". Yes, in a core seat, where Lab won 58% in 2001 and is running as oppo to unpopular austerity govt. Shld be 60% not 40%
— Rob Ford (Britain) (@robfordmancs) October 10, 2014
And other tweets where I’m accused of having my head “in the sand”.
To be fair it isn’t just RF+MG saying this – I’ve seen similar questions by others on Twitter too. But there are vast assumptions in each of those sentences that don’t stack up.
1. Working class people are not natural Labour voters. Poorer voters are not always motivated by money or economic concerns; many working class people have always been culturally conservative. As Labour has become more socially liberal (rightly, in my view), they have flocked to the Tories. In the US and UK this happened during the Reagan & Thatcher era on the issue of race / immigration, and (more recently) on issues like homosexuality and gender equality. This is why Cameron wanted to challenge his own party on gay-marriage (to ‘modernise’ it) and faced a bigger backlash than Labour did. This is also why Farage doesn’t back gay marriage despite his supposedly libertarian outlook.
More working class people have voted Labour traditionally, for economic reasons, but that doesn’t mean working class people are “naturally” Labour. Nor should Labour go for every last working class vote, unless it wants to alienate its middle class voters.
2. The Labour leadership is not complacent about the threat from UKIP. I’ve heard directly from Ed Miliband in a private meeting that he thought UKIP were a “significant” threat to the party. There is no sign whatsoever that the Labour party is complacent about UKIP, though their main focus has always remained the Tories. Quite rightly too. This oft-repeated claim that Labour is “complacent” is outright rubbish.
3. Why didn’t Labour do massively better last week in Middleton? Various reasons. Many were ex-Tory or ex-LibDem voters who disliked Labour and found a vibrant, new vehicle to register their support. Secondly, in most metropolitan areas in the Midlands or further north, Labour isn’t the opposition – they are the incumbent. All politics is local, remember? Third, it takes a while for voters to forgive Labour for their mistakes of the past (Iraq, financial crash, immigration), and they won’t just flock back quickly like some commentators think they should. It takes long, grinding contact with voters and mobiling around their issues to win back trust. Even four years is not enough.
4. Why aren’t angry voters flocking to Labour on austerity? The fact that Rob Ford seriously asks me this question reinforces my broader point about the simplistic analysis. First, a lot of voters think they haven’t been affected by austerity, or aren’t motivated against it.
Second, Labour isn’t vehemently anti-austerity anyway, the leadership has partly accepted the need for it! Those people have gone to the Greens
Third, many voters blame Labour for the austerity they’ve had to face, because they were in charge when the economy crashed.
For all these reasons, and more, Labour didn’t see a big rise in support in Heywood. Labour is not on the verge of a landslide next year, and we knew this all along.
I have no doubt I’m going to be called “complacent” for writing this, which has become the standard non-response these days.
There is a final example of how this narrative is too simplistic. In almost interview given by RF+MG, they will get a nudge from the presenter to talk about how immigration is the biggest issue for Britons right now. So they will dutifully repeat the polling in interviews.
But again this is too simplistic. Douglas Carswell was vehemently pro-immigration and open about it, and yet won with a stonking majority. Locals gave all sorts of reasons for voting for him, including street lights, not having seen their Tory MP and much more. Plus, in places like Manchester or London, Labour cannot run with an anti-immigration or anti-multiculturalism message as it will repel more of their voters than it will attract.
I will only say this. A lot of Labour seem to be under the impression that their party should be doing much better now, without recognising it takes much longer to turn around people’s indifference to Labour. This is why no party in British history has turned around a stunning defeat by the next election.
Its unfashionable to say this, but a Labour panic over UKIP (in the way Gordon Brown panicked over immigration after the Gillian Duffy incident) could hurt its own prospects far more than responding more calmly and carefully.
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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