It comes as a disappointment that the Labour Party appears to have done little analysis, at least as far as I know, of the results of the European and local elections held a month ago. While I fully accept that these two polls, often the repository for protest votes, do not necessarily provide pointers to the outcome of a general election, nevertheless, it would only be sensible for the Party to look at the way the votes went and draw conclusions which may be helpful for the future.
The Labour Party really needs to do this for the simple reason that, outside the large urban areas, it is not too good for us. Furthermore, in some places where Labour has traditionally regarded the electors as its “core vote” we lost and UKIP gained at Labour’s expense. There is obvious disillusionment in parts of the country which Labour ought to address urgently and certainly in time to take some remedial action before May 2015.
What is generally regarded as strong Labour territory in some of the Yorkshire and Humber region and southern working-class areas such as Thurrock turned to UKIP rather than us in the European Parliament elections. In Doncaster UKIP gained 24,240 votes against Labour’s 23,743. Across the Yorks and Humber region as a whole, UKIP won 31 per cent of the vote giving them three MEPs and Labour had 29 per cent with two. UKIP also won in Thurrock with more than twice as many votes as Labour, 17,416 to 8,645. The Labour Party should be worried by this strong showing for UKIP, not least because disaffected Liberal-Democrats turned to the UK Independence Party rather than Labour, which would have been the norm in the past.
The exception for Labour was the big cities, especially London, where we won four out of the eight MEPs. This is, I believe, a separate but linked phenomenon, and will be the subject of another blog. The urgent lesson for the Labour Party to address now is what we do about the fact that UKIP came first in the European elections. To imagine that all those errant electors will come home to Labour in a general election reeks of too much complacency. Tory polling guru Lord Ashcroft reckons about half of them will stay with UKIP. While I accept it’s a while to May 2015, Labour needs a strong and credible response in relation to the parts of the country, notably the old industrial and mining areas, which have suffered over the years from loss of jobs and Tory cuts in public services.
The Labour Party firstly needs to understand the lessons it should learn from the decline in its fortunes in these areas which were once solid for us. Although, as a Londoner I’m not particularly qualified to pontificate on the actual places under discussion, I do think that those living in the cities where Labour’s vote is holding up have valid comments to make. Let’s start with the old “being out of touch” chestnut. The Guardian today published their research into the backgrounds of prospective parliamentary candidates in marginal seats. In the 90 seats where Labour is the challenger, the majority of candidates had links to either Westminster or Brussels. In other words, they were political insiders.
While I think the “political insider” criticism is just a bit too trite, it is definitely one of the problems Labour is facing. Any political party which doesn’t represent its voters will find in the end that the voters go somewhere else. Yet the problem goes beyond this since UKIP did very well even in Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover. It is also true that some of these UKIP voters were for the British National Party in the past. It is, of course, also true that society has changed and those in the old mining and non-urban industrial areas are now a minority of Britain’s population.
Maybe it is this very change in the nature of our country – much higher levels of educational attainment, mass communication, the fragmentation of families and communities and, of course, immigration, to name but a few – which is causing UKIP to gain support. UKIP is a backward-looking party, a cancer eating away at the strength of our country which will inevitably attract those who are feeling alienated and disconnected. Labour, by contrast, is a progressive force, outward looking, wanting to improve people’s lives. Sadly, and possibly unhappily for Labour in the short-term, quite a few of those in former Labour areas feel the changes which are taking place so rapidly in our country are nothing to do with them and in any event they don’t like what is going on.
Short of becoming a UKIP clone, possibly in rather more of a sheep’s clothing, there is realistically little Labour can do about the old “core” vote in places which are currently rejecting the party. We need to look forward, to keep to our values, and to represent what is best for the country as a whole and not simply try and get back those whom we have clearly lost. Trying to out-UKIP UKIP would only move the whole political discourse rightwards with disastrous consequences for what the Labour Party should be about – fairness, equality, justice, freedom for the many not the few.
The irony of UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, a public school educated stockbroker, becoming the party of the old white working class is really quite tragic. I very much hope Labour will win back these voters by putting forward a programme in government for all the people of our country. If Labour does not fully embrace progressive policies which recognise the benefits of immigration, are strongly in favour of Britain playing a full part at the centre of the European Union, seek to improve living standards, including health, housing and education, and maintain Britain as a major player in the world economy and in world affairs, we will be hard pushed to get there in 2015. The choice is ours; the 2015 general election is Labour’s to lose.