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Unless Labour addresses burgeoning inequality, it will not reclaim the voters it's losing to Ukip

Hardly any attempts have been made by the party to reconnect with 'blue-collar' voters

James Bloodworth
Sunday 30 March 2014 13:41 BST
(Getty Images)

One of the most persistent myths in British politics is the idea that Ukip support is made up of disenfranchised right-wing Tories who hark back to the sepia-tinged days of Penny Farthings and hanging.

Everywhere you look this assumption has taken root, with Ukip considered the “Conservative Party in exile”, as Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne has put it, or “unhappy Conservatives,” as Times columnist Tim Montgomerie has similarly written.

It isn’t hard to see why the myth persists, either. Nigel Farage is a former stockbroker, the party is bankrolled by multimillionaire Paul Sykes, and ardent Thatcherite Neil Hamilton is Ukip’s European Election planner. In its short lifespan Ukip has also attracted the sorts of people who make Norman Tebbit look positively liberal. In 2013 the party treasurer said women should not be allowed in the board room, a major donor has spoken out against women wearing trousers, and Godfrey Bloom (before he was kicked out) thought it acceptable to call women at a party meeting “sluts”.

Not exactly the Socialist International, is it?

It’s also true that behind Ukip’s everyman beer and fags image lurk a plethora of hard-right policies. Ukip has campaigned against the teaching of climate change in schools, wants to charge patients to see a GP and hopes to get rid of inheritance tax entirely – a move that would benefit just 4 per cent of the population. Oh, and the party’s new economics spokesperson is looking to privatise the state pension.

Yet despite all of this, it would be a mistake to view Ukip as the party of well-heeled shire Tories. Ukip in power would neither comfort the afflicted nor afflict the comfortable; but contrary to received wisdom, Farage’s party is picking up an unprecedented level of support from disenfranchised blue collar voters who once upon a time would have automatically backed Labour.

Think I’m exaggerating? Then take a look at the data. The average Ukip voter is more likely to have finished education at 16 or under than voters of the three main parties and is less likely to be university-educated or have an income over £40,000. According to a 2012 poll by Lord Ashcroft, rather than appealing to the hard-right wing of the Tory Party, Ukip is picking up swaths of support from Britons worried about things like the cost of living, job security and stagnant wages. In other words, Ukip is attracting the sorts of people who have very little reason to be either right-wing or conservative.

A new book on the subject by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford drives the point home. “Far from being ‘the Conservative Party in exile’, Ukip attracts voters from the opposite side of the traditional class political divide to the Conservatives,” they write. As well as peeling away David Cameron’s blue collar support, Ukip has won over those who have been “left behind by the economic and social transformation of Britain”, they write.

The trend is being replicated on the continent, where anti-immigrant parties of the right such as the Norwegian Progress Party have won substantial support from left-leaning blue collar voters through a mixture of scaremongering about immigrants and promises of a return to the certainties of the past.

Back in Britain, the left’s reaction to the rise of Ukip has thus far been inadequate, and has either been to ignore the factors behind the party’s upsurge or, as mentioned, attribute it to those on the Tory right whose politics have always had something of the night about them. Lacking has been any attempt at reconnecting with the blue collar voters who once made up Labour’s so-called ‘core vote’.

A first step in doing this would be to talk honestly about immigration. That doesn’t mean pandering to tabloid tropes about Eastern Europeans “stealing our jobs and milking our benefits”, but it does mean that people’s worries about the pace of change cannot be automatically dismissed a xenophobic or assuaged by reeling off a handful of GDP stats. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, 60 per cent of those who came to Britain in the 1960s and 70s are also worried about immigration. Some might see this as a desire to kick away the drawbridge once they’re safely on the ship. But it probably has more to do with the reasons many came to Britain in the first place: they were attracted by social and cultural traditions which they now (unduly, in my opinion) worry are disappearing.

We must listen to these fears and not simple accuse people of being ‘brainwashed’ by the tabloids. This isn’t about harking back to the England of Enoch Powell or the English Defence League, rather it is about recognising that, as George Orwell once wrote, “there is something distinctive and recognisable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain”. It is possible to be pro-immigration but also to want to preserve the England that Orwell was writing about.

Honesty about immigration must also be accompanied by an unashamedly social democratic and, dare I say it, socialist offering to working class voters. This means more council houses, a living wage and a comprehensive programme of apprenticeships and skills training - as well as a return to public ownership of utilities such as the railways. It also means addressing the elephant in the room: burgeoning inequality. Instead of endless sermons about ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’, Labour should be a little less relaxed about the filthy rich. Indeed, it is only by reducing inequality that the left can create a genuine meritocracy, for the inequalities of the parents always and everywhere become the inequalities of the children.

First of all though, progressives must see Ukip for what they really are: not so much disgruntled Tories but people whom successive governments, both Labour and Tory, have left behind – the ‘left behind voters’, as Goodwin and Ford call them. The job of the left is to give these people hope, not to write them off as hopelessly backwards and xenophobic – or worse, to pretend they don’t even exist. Ukip want to stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’. Socialists have to show prospective Ukip voters who feel cut off from the prosperity of modern society that hope lies in the future, rather than the past.

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