The party must reconnect with the concerns of its traditional voters before it's too lateby Paul Routledge / October 31, 2014 / Leave a comment
It was the vote that did not quite dare to speak its name—but not any more. Voting Ukip has become a badge of defiance, non-conformity—pride, even—in the pubs of Yorkshire, particularly the post-industrial south and west, Labour’s traditional heartland. I suspect that much the same is true for northern England as a whole. You might call it the Wetherspoon Tendency.
“There’s no shame in voting Ukip,” a building worker told me. “We want Ukip. He’ll sort all this immigration out. The Tories haven’t tackled it, nor Labour. And the unions are getting rubbished because immigrants don’t join unions.” It’s very often just “he,” meaning Nigel Farage. There is a strong sense of identification with “the man who speaks our language.”
That’s the anecdotal evidence, but for those willing to read it, the writing was on the wall long before the tremor that shook Heywood and Middleton in last month’s by-election, where Ed Miliband almost lost a safe Westminster seat to his beer-swilling rival.
In the European Parliament elections this year, Ukip took three of the six regional seats. That was predictable. Less expected was the party’s stunning performance in town and city halls in the council elections. Farage racked up votes of a thousand or more in ward after ward, coming a close second to Labour in dozens. And some seats, they did win. Across the white rose county and northeast Lincolnshire, a total of 18. Media attention was focused on the “rotten borough” of Rotherham, where Ukip took seven seats from Labour and almost clinched a handful more, to become the official opposition in the borough council chamber.
However, the headlines for “steel town” (it was as much coal as iron) mask a disturbing, wider trend for Miliband’s core vote. In the old pit villages of the Don and Dearne valleys, around Doncaster, in Ed Balls’s constituency, in the decayed fishing constituency of Grimsby, and in the former textile and engineering town of Keighley, Ukip secured a political foothold eerily reminiscent of the Liberal Democrats in their aggressively expansionist days.
In Miliband’s Doncaster backyard, Farage’s “People’s Army” came second to Labour in 15 wards and won one, polling over 1,000 in the pit villages of Askern, Hatfield and Conisborough. In Hull, they came second to Labour in 10 wards, and won one. In Leeds, second in 12. In Sheffield, 13. As the politicians say, these are real votes, not anecdotes. Overall, more than 200,000 votes were cast for Ukip in the region.
Few predict a repeat of the 33 per cent swing to Ukip experienced in the Clacton by-election, and it doesn’t pay to generalise—Labour defeated Ukip in this week’s election for South Yorkshire police commissioner, for example—but these are mainly white, working-class districts impacted by recent Eastern European migration. Ukip targeted the traditional Labour vote: housing estate north. High unemployment Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Disgruntled supporters who feel left behind by New Labour and its sweetheart relationship with rich, celebrity England. And it is England, not Britain.
Immigration is the key. Europe is little more than dog-whistle code for immigration. John, the building worker in Wakefield, was blunt: “He is going to come on leaps and bounds. He’ll have at least 25 seats after the general election. He is appealing to people with his ideas. They are coming over here, taking our jobs, they’re taking our houses, that’s what I hear in the pub.
Read more on Labour and the north:
Ed Miliband needs to step out of his comfort zone
Heywood and Middleton by-election was a wake up call for Labour
“There are Eastern Euorpeans in my block of council flats. How did they get into these flats? Lots of people want them but normal folk can’t get them. English people will not stand for it. There are seven Polish shops within five minutes’ walking distance of my flat. I think we have gone too far with immigration. They don’t integrate. They don’t spend money in local shops. You never see them in the pubs or cafés. They must send their money back home.”
It is true that a kind of apartheid exists. Every month I visit the former pit village of South Elmsall, near Doncaster, to chew the fat with ex-miners from Frickley colliery. There are three Polski Skleps on the short main street, and many Polish workers in the trading estate up the hill, but I have never heard Polish spoken in the working men’s clubs. They fill the Roman Catholic church every Sunday, but otherwise they are virtually invisible. Labour retained the ward of Ackworth, North Elmsall and Upton, where most migrants work, but Ukip scored 1,312 votes.
Metropolitan politicians failed to heed these signs. Cameron is now promising a tougher EU migration regime “by Christmas,” and Miliband admitted in the Observer that Farage is “tapping into a seam of discontent and despair that Labour cannot—and will not—ignore.” It’s a bit late in the day to come to that conclusion. Too late, perhaps, to save once rock-solid Rotherham, or Great Grimsby (majority 714), where the retiring anti-EU veteran MP Austin Mitchell actually went out of his way to praise the Ukip candidate.
In any event, policy-tweaking is of little appeal to voters who are searching for an identity in a world they knew that has been unmade by events over which they had no control. Farage’s vision may be illusory, but it is enormously attractive to those who feel dispossessed. The Ukip leader spends so much time in Yorkshire these days he is practically an honourable Tyke. He came north again to campaign for John Clarkson, a Ukip councillor in Sheffield and a former police inspector standing for South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, and sought to position his party as the main alternative to Labour in the north.
Speaking with the trademark pint in his hand at a social club in Bentley, a former mining village in Miliband’s constituency, he declared: “What is happening now in the north, is that in these big towns and cities, the Conservatives have all but disappeared, the Liberal Democrats have gone up in a puff of smoke and we are now the opposition party.
“We are the challengers in the north of England. The implications for what we could do in next year’s general election are very significant indeed. There are a few seats in this part of the world that we are looking at and thinking about very seriously.”