It has become a political commonplace that Ukip will hurt the Conservatives more than any other party. That’s true, and it’s one of the reasons why David Cameron has tied himself up in so many knots about Europe. But as Peter Hain warns today, Labour too should not underestimate the danger Ukip represents.
Mr Hain is right about his party neglecting its white working-class traditional support. It has been doing so for many years, though; Indeed, Labour has been warned before by its own voters, who have variously turned to the Liberal Democrats, the BNP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to register their dissatisfaction.
That tells us something both hopeful and depressing. The optimistic spin is that disengaged voters tend to be repelled by the main “established” parties – which now of course includes the Liberal Democrats – rather than feeling any particular sympathy with the specific policies advocated by the parties of protest. The popularity of the BNP in parts of Essex a few years ago, for example, evaporated as quickly as it appeared. We should be more than grateful for that, and that the fundamentally democratic Ukip is marginalising the neo-Nazis. To that degree Ukip has neutralised and civilised what, in the hands of Nick Griffin, could be a much more divisive debate about immigration.
The pessimistic side of the story derives from the size and scale of the vote Ukip is likely to garner at the European elections and in next week’s by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale. For the public – and especially the core Labour voters whom Mr Hain sympathises with – are giving up on politics and politicians. Of course politicians have always been unpopular, ranking somewhere close to estate agents and bankers in public esteem – but the current mood of “anti-politics” is shading into an “anti-democratic” groundswell, even nihilism, as epitomised in Russell Brand’s deranged call for “revolution”.
We have not heard it yet, and Nigel Farage certainly does not subscribe to this view, but it may not be long before some clever man on the make starts to persuade people that parliamentary democracy is actually useless, and that what the country needs is less of the “talking shop” and more strong, determined leadership in their interests. A populist agenda – not so very different from Ukip’s, as it happens – can be easily constructed, centring on the old standbys of immigration, scapegoating business people and bankers, and blaming anything else that is wrong with the nation on Brussels and the “old parties” at Westminster. A time of economic difficulty – and nowhere has the squeeze on public spending, services and wages been felt so keenly as in Labour’s heartlands – is an opportune moment for such activity.
Mr Hain believes the answer, for Labour at least, is for it to find “radical” policies. And yet this has not always worked in the past – the 1983 debacle being the outstanding example, with scars still visible on Labour’s body politic. The answer may be something Mr Hain has more recent experience of: “New Labour”. Deeply unfashionable now, but as Labour frets about its prospects, it might be a period worth revisiting. This summer will mark 20 years since Tony Blair become leader and launched his remarkable project to re-energise Labour’s traditional support – and reach out to swing voters. He proved that it can be done.