Labour's Ukip problem

The Tories aren't the only ones in trouble

May 01, 2013
UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The party is appealing directly to alienated Labour voters © European Parliament
UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The party is appealing directly to alienated Labour voters © European Parliament

Much has been written about the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (Ukip’s) steady surge in popularity. The eurosceptic party now routinely outpolls the Lib Dems, looks set to gain seats (and voting share) in the local elections and will almost certainly come either first or second in 2014’s European elections.

The commentariat consensus has long been that Ukip benefits from the disillusionment of grass-roots Tories, unhappy and offended by Cameroonism. This is undoubtedly true to some extent. As Conservative Vice Chairman Michael Fabricant has pointed out, “the blue-collar vote doesn’t understand the Conservative party… [Ukip leader Nigel Farage] said in Eastleigh that they connected with the electorate and I don’t think we are connecting with the electorate at the moment.”

But to look at Ukip and see only deserting Tories is to fundamentally misunderstand, and underestimate, their appeal. The academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford (specialists in niche political movements) have analysed voting-intention data and discovered a perhaps surprising trend. They found that Ukip’s “core loyalists” vote for the party in all elections and are, compared with Ukips “strategic voters,” “more working class, more economically insecure, and more likely to say they come from Labour-voting families.”

It’s clear that Ukip’s appeal stretches far beyond blue-rinse golfers still mourning Thatcher’s exit from Number 10. And their second most successful media performer, deputy leader Paul Nuttall, provided some insight as to why white working-class voters might look to the party when he was interviewed on the Today programme earlier in the week. Discussing immigration, Nuttall couched his critique of the British establishment’s open-doors prejudices in language that specifically targeted the voters Labour has lost. He talked of the impact of immigrants (whom he acknowledged are often hard-working, industrious folk) in terms of young men and women in the north west to whom the doors of economic progress often seem slammed shut. He discussed the downward pressure that eastern European migrants place on wages and the unfair competition of a labour market rigged to favour over-qualified new arrivals (with lower wage and living expectations) over our own poor. This wasn’t some blunt, borderline xenophobic attack. It was empathy and nostalgia.

This sense—that Ukip actually cares about the fate of the white working class and their kids—provides Ukip with its magnetic pull on voters that Labour has long considered its property. In so many ways, New Labour embraced the worst of Thatcherism alongside its merits—not least in its contempt for the socially immobile. Immigration is not only important because of people coming here, it's important because politicians' embrace of it tells us so much about what they think about humans. And it tells us that they are generally rather weird.

Too many Blairites seem genuinely baffled by people who can’t be barristers and don’t want to be either. At a Labour pressure group event this month, one ex-Blair adviser said that he believes everyone should have the opportunity to get out of small northern towns like his and make the big time in London. Fine. But plenty of us would much rather be afforded the chance to stay close to our families, our friends and our roots—to be able to forge a good life in the place we call home. It is politicians' belief that people are rootless, ruthless individuals ready to up sticks that drives their comfort with mass immigration and their contempt for the static.

Ukip with its compassion for those of us who don’t want to forge a career in the professions or the “creative industries,” is a step ahead of a Labour party that still seems so bemused by the notion of old-fashioned labour as a source of pride and identity.

The reason Ukip is a genuine threat to the political establishment, rather than merely to the Conservative party, can be found in its accidental post-liberalism. This emerging school of political thought and practice—which seeks to challenge the assumptions and excesses of both social and economic liberalism—has found something of a testing ground in Ukip.  Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from Ukip’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.

All three main parties have important lessons to learn from Ukip’s success. A failure to grasp the post-liberal nettle and to confront the profoundly unfair impact of cold-blooded meritocracy could well lead to their slow marginalisation. This doesn't mean just imitating their policies (which often smack of illiberalism rather than post-liberalism) but it does mean adapting rhetoric and proposals to demonstrate some understanding for the people they are elected to serve. British elites have always been good at adapting to survive. For Labour, every bit as much as for the Tories, this will require throwing off the shackles of the post-1980s liberal consensus. I wonder if they can.


Putting the Tories right: James Macintyre on how Ukip became a serious threat to the Conservatives

Postmodern Tories: What does the Conservative party believe in? asks Roger Scruton