UKIP’s showing in the local elections needs to be taken seriously – and by all political parties. The biggest danger for Labour, it seems to me, is that they will notice (correctly, I suspect) that the main ‘losers’ through the rise of UKIP are the Tories, and assume as a consequence that things are basically ‘OK’ as a result, and that all that is needed is more of the same. That, to me, would be a big mistake. Labour needs to dig deeper, to be more thoughtful.
There are a number of reasons that people might have voted UKIP. It might be, as some suggest, simply a protest vote. It might, on the other hand, hint at real and worrying levels of racism and anti-immigrant feeling. It might be that the huge attention paid to Nigel Farage by the BBC et al. has just had a huge effect. It might be that people really are worried about Europe. All of these things need addressing.
The first is the most important. If this is a ‘protest vote’, Labour need to understand what people are protesting about. Why are they dissatisfied by the ‘usual’ parties? Labour should notice that they’re not offering any real alternative – that aping the coalition, accepting its austerity, its approach to welfare etc etc is not something that voters want or like. More of the same, just a tiny, tiny bit ‘nicer’ – or rather a tiny, tiny bit less hideously nasty – is not an alternative. Labour has got to show that it can offer something different – different from the current government, and different from the Labour governments of the recent past. ‘New’ Labour should be old news – and the likes of Liam Byrne, Stephen Twigg and so on should be taken swiftly and securely away from the front line.
The second – that racism and anti-immigrant feelings are on the rise is harder. It’s there, for sure – but the response could go two ways. The ‘appeasement’ approach that seems to be the current idea for the Labour party – saying ‘we hear your concerns and we’re going to be tough’ is both morally wrong and politically short-sighted. Racism and anti-immigration feeling is fuelled by fear and misinformation for the most part, egged on by a media that likes to peddle these myths. It’s easy to fall into the trap of going along with the agenda – but all it does is entrench the view, and make it easier for the likes of UKIP to succeed. Making racism ‘acceptable’ won’t help Labour – it will help Labour’s opponents, particularly in the long term. It will take bravery to challenge the false agenda head on, and it will probably be a level of bravery beyond the Labour party, sadly – but I still hope Labour will have the guts to go for it.
The third challenge – challenging the media love-in with Nigel Farage – is one that Labour must realise that they have to take face on. He gets too easy a ride – not just from the media, but from other politicians. Watching him in his all-too-regular appearances on Question Time it seems as though the other panellists treat him with kid gloves. They need to come out fighting – particularly Labour representatives. I suspect the other parties will be feeling the same – they really need to.
The fourth challenge – the challenge of Europe – is another matter entirely. It’s entirely possible that Cameron will make even more positive moves towards a referendum on membership of the EU – indeed, I’d say it’s likely. This time, if I was Ed Miliband, I’d call his bluff. Say yes to a referendum. Say it loud and clear. In fact, I’d make it part of the Labour Party’s manifesto tomorrow, if it was up to me – because this discussion has to be had, this battle must be fought, and it must be won. Hiding from the fight just isn’t enough.
That last point is true not just for Europe, but for the whole of the challenge of UKIP. Labour shouldn’t be hiding, shouldn’t be ignoring them, shouldn’t be accepting their agenda – they should be fighting them, and fighting them with strength and radicalism. Will they do it? There aren’t many signs of it so far, but I hope that behind the scenes people are at least thinking about the possibility.