Oldham, Ukip, and Labour’s fractured coalition
On Thursday, voters in the constituency of Oldham West and Royton go to the polls in a by-election triggered by the death of Michael Meacher, the long-serving Labour MP. There are fears that, despite Meacher having won the seat with a majority of 15,000 in May, Ukip could run Labour very close [LINK].
Obviously, a defeat — or even a narrow victory — would be hugely concerning for Labour MPs, most of whom have majorities significantly lower than Michael Meacher enjoyed. Whatever happens, it is likely to be presented as a disaster for Jeremy Corbyn, which seems somewhat unfair.
As you’ll know, I’m no fan of his, but turnouts are always lower in by-elections (which favours Ukip), and voters are more likely to plump for smaller parties in elections which don’t have an impact on who governs the country. I do feel that the media are fanning the flames here, keen to prolong and exacerbate the current crisis engulfing the Labour party; and of course, there is a chance that continual reports on how tight the polls are will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But this whole by-election underlines something that became clear in the 2015 election — Ukip are now not the Conservatives’ problem, but Labour’s.
Conventional wisdom says the opposite; the Tories and Ukip should be fighting over the same right-wing voters, so Ukip should end up damaging David Cameron’s party. After seeing a couple of MPs defect in 2014, the Conservatives fought hard against the Ukip threat in the run-up to the general election. The risk of a Labour/SNP coalition helped strengthen Conservative support, and Tory losses to Nigel Farage’s party were contained. In some ways, Ukip can even be seen as a benefit to the Conservatives; a receptacle for the loony right-wing, allowing David Cameron to present himself as head of a sensible, pragmatic centre-right party, free from all those “bastards” who fought John Major so hard in the 1990s.
It is true that all of this may change during the EU referendum, when Tory Eurosceptics will fight on the same side as Ukip, but for now, it is Labour who have the problem. While Ukip was only ever a tactical problem for the Tories, they are a strategic complication for Jeremy Corbyn. Ukip has managed to drive a wedge through Labour’s fragile coalition.
Since Tony Blair’s win in 1997, Labour’s support base has been built from both socially liberal middle-class voters and socially conservative working-class voters. Over New Labour’s time in office, it was the decline in votes from manual workers (social categories C2DE) which eventually cost the party power — over three million such votes disappeared [LINK]. 61% of Ukip’s voters belong to classes C2DE [LINK], and, as the 2015 election showed, Ukip is building a strong support base in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands [LINK]. Socially conservative manual workers are leaving the party that was originally set up to represent them.
How can Labour build a coalition of voters to win in 2020? Can it win without having to take votes back from Ukip?
I have heard people suggest that taking votes from the SNP and Greens will be enough to return a Labour government. The numbers aren’t there. A bit of number crunching reveals that, if every single Green voter had backed Ed Miliband earlier this year, Labour would have won 12 more seats. Even assuming Labour could win every SNP seat, that would leave Labour with 300 seats, thirty short of the Tories and eighteen away from a working majority. Even if Jeremy Corbyn helps increase turnout, the chances of pulling this kind of victory off are vanishingly small. And all this assumes that a shift to the left to chase down these votes won’t leak votes elsewhere.
Further, this strategy effectively rests on Labour representing only one strand of opinion; a socially liberal, progressive, universalist party focussed on social justice and equality. Nothing wrong with any of those things, at all, but the party needs to be a broader church in order to be able put these principles into effect. This church would not be broad, merely fervent.
The answer has to be in winning working-class voters back, and to his credit, Jeremy Corbyn realises this [LINK]. But knowing this is different to understanding what to do about it. His answers of more working-class MPs and stronger trades unions represent a good start, but a partial answer. As unpalatable as it may be for social liberals, the main divides to bridge are on immigration, welfare, Europe and crime [LINK].
Some Labour voters — both Blairite and Corbynite — may well roll their eyes at this point. I have found at times a dismissiveness from social liberals about working-class people, exemplified by Gordon Brown being caught referring to Gillian Duffy as “bigoted” during the 2010 election campaign [LINK]. This is not good enough. We can’t be a party which defends tax credits for the working poor one moment, then dismisses them as bigots the next.
Labour struggles with how to deal with immigration, because it is run by social liberals who tend to view immigration as very positive, and perceive anyone questioning its value as, basically, a bit racist. So when Labour does try and talk tough about immigration, it sounds clunky and inauthentic (think Ed Miliband’s immigration mugs this year [LINK]), putting off its social liberal voters whilst being unconvincing to everyone else.
I believe we must be a pro-immigration party, but not be embarrassed about saying so. We must never get caught up in an arms race of horribleness with Ukip, both because it is morally wrong and because we will lose. We need to stop equivocating or trying to change the subject, and stand up for what we believe in. No timidity, just a full-on, positive outline of what we believe. This should also spell out, front and centre, how Labour policies will help the working-class.
On immigration, we need to avoid falling into the typical social liberal trap of talking in dry statistics, and instead personify the good things immigrants bring. Don’t allow the conversation to become dehumanised, about numbers, but instead talk of a young family leaving behind everything they know to contribute to our society. It surely takes drive and gumption to do that — we attract the best and brightest immigrants from around the world because of what Britain has to offer, and we can be proud of that. We can talk about how immigrants contribute a huge amount to our society, from Premier League footballers to the NHS. We can talk about how local communities benefit from immigration — people moving in means higher demand for goods and services, and help pay for our ageing population. But we must not shy away from talking about it.
On welfare, we should be hammering the Tories for the working tax credits fiasco, telling voters that they are not interested in helping ordinary working people. On Europe, despite my personal misgivings, we should support the Remain campaign, and talk about how the EU gives us access to the Single Market [LINK], boosting jobs and growth.
The best way to defeat a bad idea such as Ukip is with a good idea. I’m going to quote from an article by John Healey, which sets out what I believe is the right approach [LINK]:
The causes of Ukip’s rise are economic and structural — at root, a reaction to the insecurity that globalisation and technological change have produced.
Labour’s response must be similarly broad-based and bold: an entrepreneurial industrial policy that creates good jobs; a regional policy that helps blue-collar areas which have suffered the most; an immigration policy that stops the exploitative use of migrant labour; and active trade unions to protect the pay and conditions of workers.
But the roots of Ukip support in working-class areas are also cultural. So above all, we need a Labour party active in all our local areas with Labour representatives who can be seen as authentic voices for all parts of the country. This is not a change that can be done to working-class communities, only with them.
A programme of investment in our regions, our industries, and our people is what the country is crying out for. For too long, Labour has ignored vast parts of the country in the belief that those voters have nowhere else to go. They do now. It is time to win them back.