The following article by Barry Gray, on Labour’s response to UKIP’s rise, originally appeared on Left Futures.
In the wake of UKIP’s electoral advance, both at this year’s General Election and last year’s European Parliament election, the Labour Party has come under growing pressure, from inside and outside its own ranks, to adapt to UKIP’s anti-immigrant and English nationalist agenda.
Backed by the right-wing media, the ‘Blue Labour’ current within the party in particular has stepped up its agitation for further concessions to the framework set by UKIP. This is direction in which John Healy and others are pushing the discussion.
Labour’s stance has already significantly shifted during the last parliament. Ed Miliband’s leadership made a big issue of ‘apologising’ for ‘failing to adequately control’ previous immigration. Then the 2015 election became the first where Labour featured the tightening of immigration controls as one of its top five pledges – with pledge cards and campaign mugs to underline the commitment. In fact in this election Labour was the only mainstream party that placed immigration as one of its key issues. Of course on the far-right it was UKIP’s main campaign focus.
During the election campaign, when the Tory media whipped up an English nationalist fear of a Labour government backed by SNP votes, Labour just adopted the framework instead of rebutting it. It made clear it also considered working with the SNP to be unacceptable, validating the Tory campaign.
Since the election there has been a push for Labour to concede further to elements of English nationalism.
All of this is just a self-defeating response to the advances on the far-right. The cutting edge of UKIP’s campaign is its reactionary, scape-goating, little Englander framework. Labour should play no part in promoting it. Not least because you never defeat your political opponents by conceding their arguments.
The way to stop voters being drawn towards UKIP is to convince people that UKIP is wrong, not to tell them it is right. Voters need to be convinced of the real facts and UKIP’s racist myths exposed for what they are. Migrants are not responsible for declining living standards, it is employers that are cutting wages, backed up by the Tories’ austerity policies. Labour needs to determinedly and unwaveringly explain these facts and push back against the reactionary agenda on immigration set by UKIP and echoed by the Tories.
Introducing the anti-immigration focus into Labour’s general election campaign was a shift that only damaged support for the party. Labour should be building an electoral alliance that draws in liberal minded and ethnic minority voters – not repelling them.
Tory strategists, on the other hand, for this election decided not to focus on immigration. They deliberately suspended their normal racist propaganda for the duration of the campaign, precisely because it would benefit UKIP.
It is evident from the election’s outcome that Labour’s campaign strategy was an abject failure. But the right-wing media claim that was because Labour was too ‘left’ with some even arguing it was too ‘soft’ on immigration. Both of these assertions turn reality on its head, as can be seen from the main trends in the election.
The shifts from 2010 to 2015
Labour took a 30.4 per cent share of the vote; compared to the 2010 election this is an increase of 1.5 per cent and it secured an additional 740,000 votes.
UKIP took a 12.6 per cent share; which is a 9.5 per cent increase and it secured an additional 2,960,000 votes.
The left of centre parties, that attacked those focussing on immigration controls and challenged UKIP’s racism, advanced more than Labour at the election. The SNP and Greens both made larger electoral gains. The SNP increased its vote share by 3.1 per cent and the Greens by 2.8 per cent, compared with Labour’s 1.5 per cent rise.
There is no truth in the, regularly repeated, claim that UKIP drew as much support away from Labour as it did from the Tories.
To delve into where parties drew their support from it is necessary to look at the opinion polls. Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 12,000 plus voters interviewed on 7 May (here) is the most recent large publicly available survey that measured the switching of voters from one party in 2010 to another in 2015. As with earlier polling evidence it confirms that UKIP gained its votes mainly from former Tory and Lib Dem supporters, plus some from Labour. It found the following:
- The greatest numbers of desertions to UKIP were from the Coalition Parties – 5.2 per cent of all those who voted in the 7 May election were 2010 Conservatives defecting to UKIP and 2.2 per cent were 2010 Liberal Democrats to UKIP. Only 1.7 per cent of those polled were 2010 Labour who switched to vote UKIP in 2015.
- Labour held on to the vast majority of its 2010 vote. Plus it gained significant 2010 Liberal Democrat support. As many 2010 Liberal Democrat supporters voted Labour in 2015 as voted Liberal Democrat – 6.4 per cent of all voters in both cases.
- 2.0 per cent of voters were 2010 Labour voters who switched allegiance to Labour’s left in 2015, voting for the SNP, Greens or Plaid Cymru. This is greater than the Labour defections to UKIP.
(The above figures are taken from Table 2 pg 5 and exclude those who cannot remember how they voted or refused to say).
In conclusion, the polling evidence is that Labour lost more to its left than it did to UKIP and the election results indicate that parties to the left that rebutted an immigration controls agenda advanced more than Labour, which adopted it.
On moral grounds, there ought to be a robust challenge to UKIP’s racism, irrespective of electoral considerations. But Labour also stands to gain.
A shift rightwards by Labour on race and English nationalism can only drive away support, both to its left and right.
Calls from the right-wing media should be ignored. They scapegoat minorities to distract attention from those responsible for austerity. They oppose Labour and are sirens seeking to lure it towards further electoral defeats.
Regardless of which parties UKIP attracts its support from, Labour needs to confront UKIP’s racism, but this is also the way to drive back UKIP and for Labour to advance.
This article originally appeared at Left Futures.