Revolt on the Left: dealing with Labour’s UKIP problem

The Fabian Society are right to highlight the UKIP threat to Ed Miliband, writes Richard Carr.

The Fabian Society are right to highlight the UKIP threat to Ed Miliband, writes Richard Carr

The Fabian Society last week published the report Revolt on the Left by Marcus Roberts. Its core argument is that the so-called UKIP effect may have precisely the opposite result to what most have assumed, and may in fact end up costing Labour up to 10 more seats than it does the Tories.

The report is partially a discussion of psephology (it doesn’t dispute the contention that UKIP will take more Tory votes, but it’s seats that matter), but also alights on what Labour should do about this. Solutions include doubling down on the 200,000 houses pledge (albeit with a more local focus), running with Rachel Reeves’ proposals for increased contribution in the welfare system, and resourcing areas to cope with the impact of demographic changes wrought by EU migration.

The report is perceptive and interesting, and I wouldn’t disagree with its main contentions. But there is more to say on Labour’s relationship with UKIP, and its brand of social conservatism.

There are clearly crackpots within that party, as in any other, and calling them out is fair enough. But the notion that simply highlighting these prior to every election will be enough to de-rail the Farage train was destroyed by the over four million votes UKIP got in May’s European elections.

UKIP is in a sense just indicative of the fact that Labour need to stop being so contemptuous of any prominent figure who sticks their head above the parapet on a social conservative issue. Maurice Glasman’s proposal to afford state funded breaks for couples celebrating their fifth, tenth or twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was a textbook case in point.

For sure, you can argue the toss on the specifics of that, but it is hardly stuff that should be beyond the pale. At the time Glasman stated that ‘‘I’d like to see us redistribute resources to people who care – for each other, for children – so that couples can have a night out on a little date.” Labour’s oddly haughty response: ‘Maurice’s views do not represent the Labour Party.’ Great.

Another similar instance was the marriage tax allowance announced by the government – a policy supported by the British public by a three to one margin. Here Labour are so mired in the politics of opposition that this was instantly dubbed a ‘singlestax’ by some MPs.

Forget Farage, have Labour now got to the position where they are prepared to gift free ‘Cameron stands up for family values’ headlines to the Tories? If Ed Balls’ decision to scrap the policy is to be believed, apparently so. The marriage tax break is worth £3.58 a week. Small change, and yet symbolically key.

Labour keep making these bits of weird policy tinkering. A majority of UKIP voters are over 60 years and believe in the family unit. Giving the shifting demographics of the country over the next fifty years, there are going to be an awful lot more such types.

To these voters Labour is offering to cut Winter Fuel Allowance, freeze child benefit, and remove incentives to marry. These will save about a combined £800-900m (or <1 per cent of the deficit).

If these moves were the credibility down-payment on some dramatic new policy – extending the new homes pledge to 300,000, adding 200 new University Technical Colleges by 2020, or introducing a broad based Robin Hood Tax – that would have some intellectual coherence. If they were more dramatic cuts, that might at least buy some more credibility.

Yet, presently constructed, it’s difficult to see the point of the attachment the party has put on them. Iron fiscal discipline is not just about making Mick Jagger fork out for his own heating.

And it’s this type of dithering that makes Farage able to wear the cloak of the dramatic, conviction-led leader so adroitly. Even the Tories have sold a more modest agenda in brighter colours than Labour at times. Here the left-leaning commentariat also have much to answer for too – anointing every few hundred million pounds bit of tinkering with a dutiful ‘important intervention from Y’ affords neither tweeter nor tweetee much believability.

Labour just aren’t making enough big calls. Nigel Farage is calling to leave an institution Britain has been a part of for over forty years. If he’s elected in 2015, David Cameron will probably have ended up doubling the point at which the lowest paid start paying income tax. Labour can argue against the numbers on both these points, but they are certainly clear enough positions.

Labour argue that extracting a few more coppers out of the pockets of the top 1 per cent is socially just and economically sensible, and, though I’d personally be leaning more towards wealth taxation than income, they’re right. But if you want to re-engage people in the political process then treating them to a four year long thought shower about the merits of pre-distribution whilst you triangulate a bit of money here and there is a bit much. Farage’s human touch has been long remarked upon.

Fundamentally however, it is entirely possible that Labour are structurally unable to deal with the UKIP problem. The type of working class voters who like Nigel Farage do not, in short, think much of Ed Miliband. North London liberal. Possibly a nice guy. But not someone they see as prime minister. He possesses neither the oratory of opposition era Blair, nor the conviction of early Thatcher.

To be fair to Miliband, much of the rot set in in seats like Clacton and Rochester during the Blair years. But short of ejecting Miliband there’s not much Labour can do about this state of affairs – and it may indeed be that the trade off remains that Ed can reach former Lib Dems and liberal Tories in the south that other Labour politicians can’t.

Still, sacrificing Dudley North and Rotherham for a shot at Cambridge and Norwich South is a risky trade off.

But there’s another structural problem which Toby Hill nailed last week: “the left’s struggles have shifted from the grounds of class to focus on sexuality and gender – understandably tempting territory for the middle-class radical, allowing them to feel personally involved and oppressed and so to indulge their own narcissism.”

The left indulges in a fair bit of this, most recently seen when haranguing straw dinosaurs like Austin Mitchell. But it is particularly resonant with UKIP voters – 63 per cent of which are male. Labour’s focus on gender equality has numerous positive ends, but with a quarter of a million more unemployed men than women (table A03) and 10 per cent more women than men at university, it may well be that a phalanx of working class male voters do not think Labour speaks for them and have become overly ‘lattefied.’

Put simply, it is easy to find Labour’s position on All Women Shortlists, but does the electorate have a handle on what figure the party will attempt to reduce unemployment to during the next parliament? The former has a role in redressing the gender balance of parliament, but the latter is surely the bigger issue for 99.99 per cent of voters, UKIP or not.

And so the Fabian Society have done some good work in highlighting the UKIP threat to Miliband. It is something that Labour need to be dealing with more effectively whilst, of course, stressing the gulf that lies between the parties.

This calls for a more ambitious agenda on jobs and homes on the one hand, but also more prominence to areas of social conservatism within the labour movement.

Oppositions have to be bold and make in-roads into their opponents’ traditional heartlands. Blair and Cameron did this successively. Suffice to say, Labour currently have a long way to go.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He published the book One Nation Britain this summer

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