What the left should take from Rochester and Strood

Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that's fine.

Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that’s fine

UKIP now has its second MP in the form of Mark Reckless, whose decision to defect has albeit reduced his majority from 9,953 in 2010 to 2,920.

So what should the Labour Party – and the left more broadly – take from UKIP’s latest triumph?

Labour really do look out of touch

Labour held the Rochester and Strood seat until 2010; yet four years later the party has seemingly surrendered the seat without a fight. Emily Thornberry also managed to snatch some of the ignominy of defeat from the Conservatives by tweeting a photo which appeared to express shock at the sight of an England flag draped from a bedroom window.

It’s easy to put this down to an innocent misjudgement on the Labour frontbencher’s part, but there are a not insignificant number of people on the left – people who I agree with about most things – who really do view the sight of a British or English flag (for some reason the flags of other countries don’t count) with unadulterated horror.

This helps to explain why UKIP’s line about a ‘metropolitan elite’ is so effective. Most people view the flying of an England flag as a relatively harmless affair, even if they don’t much go in for flags themselves. Yet many liberals view flag-flying as a form of coded racism. Patriotism is supposed to be irrational and intelligent people are meant to transcend or sneer at it, or something like that. In reality most people aren’t raging nationalists, but nor are they terrified of any expression of national sentiment. Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that’s fine.

UKIP must be pinned down

As Dave Osler wrote earlier today, ‘The more concretely we paint UKIP as a pointless third-rate Thatcher tribute band, the more effective it will prove’. UKIP can’t pose as libertarians yet oppose same-sex marriage and support tougher border controls. Nor can the party claim to represent the interests of working class voters while intimating that it might privatise the NHS given half a chance. You can’t have a dish of fried snowballs and you can’t have reheated Thatcherism with socialist characteristics.

If UKIP continues to win over disgruntled Tories who dislike the liberal direction of society that’s one thing, but Labour and the wider left ought to draw attention to UKIP’s Thatcherite and privatising bent. The so-called ‘left behind voters’ may have concerns about immigration, but they also have concerns about jobs and whether there will be an NHS in 10 years time.

There is plenty of scope for social justice here – the meat and drink of  a politician like Ed Miliband. Unlike their leader Nigel Farage, UKIP voters are bothered about things like economic inequality; and however much UKIP politicians like Paul Nuttall MEP play up their left-leaning economic credentials, the party is led by an unapologetic heir of Thatcher. It’s time to capitalise on that.

Listen to the sensible voices on immigration

By that I mean neither the anti-immigrant obsessives nor the open border liberals (although I wouldn’t wish to compare the two in terms of sentiment). The think tank British Future released some excellent research this week showing that a majority of the public sit neither at the rejectionist pole nor the ultra-liberal one. Most people don’t want to pull up the drawbridge but nor are they comfortable with the high level of immigration Britain currently has; they want something in between.

The research also rejected the crude assumption that racial prejudice is the cause of most if not all opposition to immigration. When respondents were asked to choose which of a list of attributes was most important to being British, half said respecting people’s right to freedom of speech was the most important thing; 46 per cent said respect for the law; and 41 per cent said speaking English. Only six per cent chose ‘being white’.

This is hugely encouraging. It also indicates that, beyond a small proportion of obsessives, the ‘bigot’ explanation for worries  about immigration is well wide of the mark. Neither open nor closed borders but something in between: centre-left politicians can work with this.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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