He crashed in Stoke. But a sharper operator could still revive the northern rightby Philip Collins / March 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
At Ukip’s February conference in Bolton everything was purple, even the prose in the pamphlets. There were purple rosettes, purple baseball caps and purple devices that help you deliver a leaflet without getting bitten by a dog. There were purple clothes and it probably rained purple rain. The new Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, MEP for the North West, was on his own patch. Until local elections in 2014, Ukip had no councillors in Bolton and now it is the third largest party in the borough. It is exactly the sort of northern mill town, with a tradition of working-class conservative voters, that Nuttall’s leadership is said to target. Yet he may struggle. For it is starting to look like he may somehow be not quite purple enough.
To anyone unversed in the tense rivalries of northern England, Paul Nuttall might seem the perfect Ukip leader. He is audibly Liverpudlian and what could be more northern than that? This is to reckon without the exceptionalism of Liverpool or the dislike of Scousers in Manchester. As Paul Morley points out in his monumental book The North, identities can be very localised. The idea of the north west only exists in the fantasies of European parliament constituencies. Indeed, the only time people say they come from the north is to draw the contrast with the soft south.
Nuttall’s problem may run deeper than that. He has a northern authenticity problem even within Liverpool itself. The index of being a pure Scouser is having one of Liverpool City Council’s luminous purple wheelie bins. As a resident of Bootle in the neighbouring borough of Sefton it is a test that Nuttall fails. He is regularly dismissed in Liverpool as either a “wool,” which means a plastic Scouser from beyond the city proper, or a “meff” which means a tramp. If Nuttall dumps Ukip in the dustbin of history it might be because his bin isn’t purple enough.
The first test of Nuttall’s leadership of Ukip was the Stoke by-election and he endured a most torrid time. He had to admit live on Radio City that he had not, as he had claimed on his website, lost close personal friends at Hillsborough. A press officer was thrown overboard for the oversight and the site was taken down for “scheduled maintenance.” Pretty hastily scheduled, it seemed. Nuttall’s loose relationship with accuracy prompted questioning of some other of his dubious claims. He does not have a doctorate. He did not, after all, once play for Tranmere Rovers. And he did not win an Oscar for La La Land either (I made that one up). He does, however, swagger round in tweed, an incongruous sight in Liverpool, a city in which no Conservative has held a single council seat since 1988. In a city of 466,000 people just 100 are members of the Conservative Party. Ukip is doing no better. When Nuttall stood for parliament in his native Bootle he won only 11 per cent of the vote. The conservative working class is not persuaded yet.
There is certainly no inherent contradiction in that phrase. Until the 1950s, Liverpool was a stronghold of working-class conservatism, partly for religious reasons. Catholics used to vote Labour and Protestants Conservative, which was why the Tories won five out of the nine Liverpool seats in 1951. The Lancashire mill towns—Bury, Bolton, Oldham—have often returned Conservatives to parliament, again often reflecting a historical anti-Catholic impulse. Rural Lancashire and Yorkshire tend to be as Tory as rural constituencies everywhere. The early-20th-century Conservative clubs had more than half a million members, largely drawn from the urban working class. Conservative governments have a proud record, if they want to herald it, of legislation that benefited the British working class. It was, for example, a Tory government that introduced contributory pensions for low-paid workers in 1925. Much earlier, Disraeli’s first government had extended the franchise to urban working men. His second administration legalised picketing, improved factory conditions and cleared the slums. Alexander Macdonald, a miners’ leader who became one of the first Liberal-Labour MPs, once said of that government that it had “done more for the working class in five years than the Liberals have in 50.”
Yet the Conservatives have gone south in the north in recent times. They won less than a third of northern votes in 2010 and 2015, 12 points lower than the rest of England. Back in 1951, the gap was far smaller. Churchill took 47 per cent of the north and 50 per cent in the rest of England. Today, there are no Conservative MPs in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford or Newcastle upon Tyne. Of the 158 MPs in seats across the north west, north east, Yorkshire and the Humber, only 44 are Conservative.
This cannot be explained by living standards which, once lower wages are offset by lower living costs, are much the same as the south. There is some regional effect by occupation, as the north is much more public sector than the south. The main culprit is Margaret Thatcher, whose government was and is regarded in the north of England as unnecessarily cruel. David Cameron could never redress this, so remote and posh and Home Counties as he was. Even George Osborne’s evident desire to give power away to Labour councils has done little to shift the impression.
The inability of the Conservatives to capitalise on working-class votes, coupled with a Labour Party led by a man who doesn’t like singing the national anthem, was supposed to be Ukip’s opportunity. Nuttall took over from Nigel Farage with the explicit promise that he could do to Labour in England what the SNP has done to Labour in Scotland. At his Bolton conference, Nuttall offered nothing much. He walked through the usual Ukip contradiction of wishing simultaneously to reduce taxation while spending more on health and housing. All of this expenditure is somehow to come out of the foreign aid budget. Nuttall’s politics are the usual country-gone-to-the-dogs mix of the angry right. He sees demons in man-made climate change and political correctness—especially concerning gay people and the term limit for abortion and family planning services.
These are not the issues that will win over the northern working class. The last leader to win an overwhelming mandate from that group was Tony Blair in 1997 and, of all people, it might be to Blair that Ukip should look if it wants to secure working-class votes. Blair has been reinvented in recent years as the cosmopolitan liberal’s even more cosmopolitan liberal. The Iraq war reduces his standing in the debate, and the decision not to impose immigration controls on the European accession countries in 2004 is used as evidence that he simply cannot begin to understand why people voted to leave the European Union.
There is some truth in this but it neglects the fact that Blair understood the connection between being part of the Labour family and being, in conventional political terms, quite right-wing. It is a standard part of a working-class Labour sensibility to be harsh on crime. The poor have always been the most likely victims of crime so there is no surprise there. The northern working class do believe in welfare for severe hardship, but also that it should be dependent on putting something in; rights and responsibilities to translate it into the political cliché. Working-class places in the north of England tend to be conservative on social issues and, relative to the rest of the country, suspicious of immigration, which is regarded largely as an economic rather than merely a cultural threat.
Given this sensibility, Nuttall’s strategic choices for Ukip in Stoke were baffling. It is a fundamental error to suppose that the northern working class spends a lot of time worrying about the EU, even now. To suggest that a Ukip victory would make Stoke the “Brexit capital of Britain” was beside the point. To the extent that the EU featured in anyone’s life, it was a remote, rather pointless abstraction which, if it did anything at all, made fruit the wrong shape. The issue on which they wanted to take back control was immigration. The issues on which Ukip can now run are immigration, crime, welfare and the armed forces. These are all topics on which a liberal Labour Party led by a peacenik is seriously vulnerable.
The prime minister has, of course, noticed. If there is any time for an actual government in the interstices of leaving the EU the May administration has stated the ambition of becoming the party of the workers. It may be counterintuitive, but it is not a crazy idea. The northern working class votes and it has to vote for someone. If Labour cannot find a way past Jeremy Corbyn and Ukip cannot capitalise, there may be space, as Ruth Davidson has done for the Conservatives in Scotland, to take up the space. The Tory brand, though, remains very tarnished.
Besides, there is another reason for supposing that Ukip is not down yet in the north of England. Nuttall did, after all, poll a quarter of the votes in Stoke. The story of Ukip in the north is sustained by the cycle of punditry. There has been a strange two-step in the writing. The first step is to exaggerate the likelihood of a major breakthrough. Then, when that unlikely event fails to happen, the second step is to declare that Ukip is falling woefully short. Meanwhile, Ukip, which polled 13 per cent in the 2015 general election is polling 13 per cent now. In net terms, nothing much has happened. Ukip is still there, an irritant but not more than that. Its support is less tied to the EU than most commentators suppose. Immigration matters more—and so does the desire to vote for “none of the above” and even Theresa May can not claim to be that.
The Mexican political theorist Benjamin Arditi has written that the populist is like a drunken guest at a dinner party who is rude to everyone but, in the midst of his unsavoury tirade, utters some uncomfortable truths that the gathering does not want to hear. A dinner party is not exactly the most common social occasion among the northern working class. For a start, dinner in the north is in the middle of the day. Arditi’s would be a better image if it were, like Farage, a disruptive guest in the pub. If that guest talked about immigration, crime and welfare he might get a hearing. We are experiencing a novelty in political life—a time in which every party is not very good. There is nobody to vote for; the vote must go somewhere. A fine leader could seize this moment. We await their arrival, in the north of England and everywhere else.