Labour must not yield to anti-European sentiment after Ukip’s success in last month’s elections, Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, told a conference of Labour activists yesterday. Warning that the British electorate will be “watching carefully” to see how Labour responds to Nigel Farage’s party, Mr Umunna said: “You can pose with a pint, drink loads of beer and smoke loads of cigarettes, till you keel over, for the benefit of the cameras, but that does not mean you have the solutions.”
Despite accusing Mr Farage of “maliciously” distorting the immigration debate by offering “easy explanations to complex causes”, Mr Umunna – tipped as a future Labour leader – said his party had to “respect the result” and that concerns thrown up by last week’s vote could not be ignored.
Mr Umunna was speaking to activists at the annual conference of the Progress think-tank, which broadly represents a Blairite and right-leaning stance inside Labour.
The Progress conference at the TUC’s London headquarters was the first opportunity for party activists, MPs and shadow ministers to discuss the implications of last month’s local and European Parliament elections for Ed Miliband’s chances of winning next year’s general election.
Although citing voter apathy and low turnout as contributing factors, the shadow Business Secretary said Mr Farage had used voter “uncertainty” over jobs and the economy.
He told the conference: “That’s why Ukip topped the poll. Like all history’s successful ideologues, [Ukip] tapped into that feeling of being out of control, and have given people an easy explanation for something and someone to blame.”
But he insisted that Europe “isn’t the main problem”. “If we give up on it, our consequent reduced influence on the world stage – economically and politically – will become a very big problem. If we work at it, it can be part of the solution to problems I’ve described,” he said.
Mr Umunna said Labour should take no comfort in the virtual wipeout of the Liberal Democrats, who lost all but one of their MEPs last week. “The easy thing would be to rejoice in the Lib Dems’ discomfort at being the biggest losers.” The shadow Business Secretary added that it would also be a mistake to focus too much on the attempted coup to remove Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader. “The people we represent could not care less about Matthew Oakeshott [the peer who commissioned private polls in key Lib Dem constituencies], and the ups and downs of the Westminster soap opera.”
Progress’s honorary president, Stephen Twigg, the former Education minister, also warned the conference that Ukip “cannot be dismissed as a flash in the pan”. The “simplistic, tub-thumping approach” of Nigel Farage had an appeal, he said, but the next election would “ultimately be between Conservative and progressive politics”.
That may be more hope than reality. A new ComRes poll this weekend has forecast that nine in 10 of the four million voters who backed Ukip and its anti-EU message could vote the same way in the general election scheduled for next May.
After the last EU elections in 2009, where Ukip recorded 16.5 per cent of the vote, its support fell to just 3 per cent at the 2010 general election. But if the new ComRes poll is even broadly accurate, the emergence of a four-party system in UK politics would be established and likely to shatter current forecasts of who can win next year.
Caroline Flint, the shadow Energy Secretary, tried to lift the mood of the Progress activists, telling them the results of last week showed Labour “close” to winning a mandate next year.
She added that Labour faced a “critical 12 months” ahead and claimed that the Conservatives had lost votes in “key marginals”. She said the “gloom” supposed to have descended over Labour in recent media headlines was “wrong”. Backing the promise offered by Mr Umunna, she said Labour would “not mimic Ukip” on immigration and would “do what is right, not what’s popular”.
Given the emerging question marks over Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the party-wide criticism over Labour’s strategy in countering the Ukip vote, the decision by Progress to invite the pollster Peter Kellner to address the conference was a brave one. And what he told them was uncomfortable.
Mr Kellner, president of the YouGov polling organisation, said Ed Miliband could not win a mandate unless “big changes” were made.
He told the conference: “Voters do not believe Ed Miliband is up to the job of being the prime minister. He is seen as not being strong. And Labour is still behind the Tories on economic competence.”
His comments, along with others on Labour’s “lack of a compelling narrative”, were met with substantial applause from the conference floor.
The new chair of Progress, John Woodcock MP, was asked by The Independent on Sunday if he would like to test agreement with Mr Kellner’s comment by a show of hands. He declined.
Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary:
With a deliberate and maliciously distorted analysis of immigrants and our sovereignty, [Ukip] have made Europe and immigration the problem. They have capitalised on people’s increasing distrust of politics and other institutions by claiming they are a force against the establishment.
Caroline Flint, Shadow Energy Secretary:
For the 2015 general election, the old ‘swingometer’ has gone… Four-party politics is now in play.
Peter Kellner, YouGov:
Ed Miliband has to persuade [the electorate] that he is up to the job of being prime minister.
Lord Wood, Shadow minister without portfolio and policy adviser to Ed Miliband:
There is huge concern about quality [of public services] in the UK. The answer is not just about turning on the spending tap.