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

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

20 Responses to “Revolt on the Left: dealing with Labour’s UKIP problem”

  1. Dave Roberts

    ” resourcing areas to cope with the changes wrought by EU immigration”. Is that it?

  2. Guest

    Yea, no calls for your pogroms. Cry harder.

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    So they’re arguing, unsurprisingly, for moving sharply right.

    The only reason UKIP is a “problem” for Labour is it’s squabbling over policy specifics between parties of the right (Labour, LibDem, Tory, UKIP), with nobody left to stand up for centralists, let alone the left!

    And even then the polling tabs show that there simply is not the crossover which the Fabians are claiming! But no, we need more “social conservatism”, strong moves to support only certain “acceptable” types of people.

    That you call ending gender discrimination and fighting the very real hate against the Other which is rising from the right as being “lattified”…

    Moreover, to take one example of how silly the right-wing squabbling is;

    A “marriage” tax break of any significance will lead to fake (economic) marriages. Better to address *real* issues such as why a married (including civil marriage/common law) couple is assumed to need far less in the way of benefits than two single people.

  4. blarg1987

    Partially agree with your points.

    Shame that no one, especially Labour are challenging UKIP more on their policies, for example I hear UKIP saying they will leave the EU but do not hear anyone say will they abolish employment rights etc or a reply from UKIP.

    I guess the only problem is that UKIP does tend to do a uturn on policy within hours of whatever it says or publishes.

  5. sarntcrip


  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Yea – remember what Farrage said about their official manifesto?

    And they’re not Labour’s problem, really, despite the anguished howls that Labour isn’t far right enough from, er, the right.

  7. GhostofJimMorrison

    “The report is partially a discussion of psephology…”

    Good to see the Fabians down with working class vernacular! Jesus wept!

  8. jaydeepee

    punctuation not your strongest talent is it

  9. Dave Roberts

    Where did I call for that Leon?

  10. GhostofJimMorrison

    You missed the question mark. And you began the sentence without a capital P. Try harder.

  11. GhostofJimMorrison

    Nice try, LordBlagger!! 🙂

  12. Guest

    How dare correct terminology be used.

    Pol Pot would have loved that one, and you made a mistake there, it’s “Satan Cries”, for your religion.

  13. Guest

    Your post, LordBlagger. As usual.

  14. Guest

    You’re one person, it’s pretty plain LB.

  15. Guest

    Ah, grammar police to match your big brother morality fetish.

  16. treborc1

    Those that tell others how to write should at least try to make sure they are perfect, yes…. Always start your sentence with a capital, and end it with a full stop.

    Must try harder ….

  17. treborc1

    No they are not saying they will leave the EU, I’ve got UKIP brochure and what it says is this, we will offer the people a vote. hell of a lot different then saying we will leave. Lets be honesty I suspect a lot of people agree this is not the common market we voted for, it’s a new revolution a complete change of power, so the vote the referendum should be for all parties and then battle to get people to vote yes or no

  18. littleoddsandpieces

    There is another growing threat to Labour. The effect of the loss of Scottish independence in Scotland in growth of membership of SNP and scottish Greens, and and the growing real left in England. See my personal website

    for a speech tour this month chaired by the Left Unity Party on how new socialist parties in Europe won elections.

    Pensioners are not helped by UKIP nor Labour.

    Women 60 since 2013 are coming off the electoral roll because of loss of state pension payout at 60, when they are the income level that would have voted Labour.

    But there are huge swathes of women born since 1953 and men born since 1951 that will get NIL STATE PENSION and therefore food/fuel money for LIFE.

    Winter Fuel Allowance has already been cut for the eldest pensioners, and the £100 given to millionaire MPs within a rise in their second home allowance, which is the true spare room subsidy, as one of the expenses on top of the allowance, is an expense for family to stay overnight in their extra extra bedroom in a whole extra home, for which the taxpayer pays the council tax bill.

    Cutting spending on welfare is actually taking money from the people who contribute it.

    The poorest, in or out of work and however long we live, pay a 90 per cent tax rate even when not paying one penny in Income Tax, because 75 per cent of tax from people to government comes from stealth taxes and VAT we all pay.

    Denying pension payout and benefits has lost jobs on the high street, because it is the poor and the old who shop in town centres.

    It was our membership of Europe that lost people their state pension payout, because it was a EU Directive that raised the retirement age, just so the EU government could plunder the pensions from all sources in the indebted nations, whose debts were caused by the EU’s irresponsible lending methods.

    The left wing party No2Eu endorsed by the late lamented Wedgwood Benn showed that it was the EU that destroyed employment rights, as shown by what the Troika is demanding of Greece. Forcing 7 day working, curtailing the right to strike and not backing workers who won court cases against dismissal by government.

    There is so much that Labour could be saying that would have given it a massive advantage over all other parties.

    So aren’t they?

  19. mk123

    Blair openly stated that he wanted a European cafe culture in the UK, I can only assume Labour’s open door immigration policy was a way of ushering one in pronto. Labour’s strong holds are in areas with high immigration levels, thus they are paralysed on this issue and quite frankly the growth in the non-white British voters will put any immigrant friendly party in a powerful position in the future. Like the rise of the hispanic vote in the USA, in the not too distant future, the White British population will not decide future election outcomes. This article perceptively captures Labour’s contempt for it’s core declining white working class and it’s gamble that a new generation of immigrants will propel it to eternal power in the future. It Scottish gamble didn’t go to plan and it is possible that they have underestimated the sense of Britishness that has been dormant for generations. UKIP may triumph because its not the Tories or Labour and gives those tribal voters somewhere else to go.

  20. jaydeepee


Leave a Reply