Monday, 26 May 2014

Ukip pose the biggest threat to a Labour Party that still doesn't know what it stands for

This has been a good weekend for Nigel Farage and Ukip; and a truly awful one for the political establishment.

In the British local elections everyone’s most, or least depending on your perspective, band of rebels gained dozens of seats and would have had 17% of the vote nationally if the result were replicated in a general election.

Ukip dis equally well in the European election held over the weekend, again they gained seats, pushing the Tories into third place and contributed to the near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats.

All of a sudden a fringe party are starting to look like players somewhere other than in the sometimes overheated rhetoric of their leader. This has prompted much chin stroking and not a little knee trembling in the corridors of power.

The people have spoken; the scoundrels, but what can it all mean? What indeed, here’s my take.

Ukip have two key advantages over the three main UK parties. The most obvious is Farage himself, like or loathe him he’s one of the few of the current crop of politicians with what might be called the ‘common touch.’ His cheeky chappie who likes a beer and tweaking the nose of pompous officials in Brussels or Westminster act, and it is assuredly an act, has been devastatingly effective.

They have another advantage too and that is they are selling the simplest message in politics, ‘we are against’, what they’re against seems dependent on the individual candidate and the conditions on the ground since they seem to operate more like a franchise than a has allowed them to tap into the powerful wellspring of public concerns about issues liken immigration or the EU.

On occasion thus has led them into some dangerous territory, more than one candidate has had to be quietly removed for making comments that are at best ill-informed and at worst openly racist within hearing of the press. This should have been damaging, yet somehow Farage has managed to dribble the debate around such obstacles like a gifted winger with the ball at his feet.

At one level Ukip, whether they explicitly wish to or not, provide an outlet for the sizeable chunk of the electorate who are ill at ease with multi-culturalism, but fear being identified with the overtly racist BNP. Here instead is a party that allows them to cloak their prejudices behind a fantasy of returning Britain to some arcadia where tea is served at four, there’s cricket on the village green and old ladies cycle to evensong through the mist. It is, of course, twaddle and quite dangerous twaddle too.

The rise of Ukip has been awkward for the Tories, tempting them back into the morass of squabbling over Europe that destroyed John Major’s government in the nineties. It could though be utterly disastrous for Labour, providing a focus for discontent in ex-industrial cities the party has taken for granted for far too long.

It is here not in the leafy Home Counties that concerns over the shortage of jobs, crumbling public services and immigration are most acute. A feeling that is fed by a tabloid press that is almost exclusively right wing and thrives on moral panics and disinformation, in the resulting din the message that Tory economic policies not Eastern European immigrants or the EU are to blame for people’s misfortunes gets drowned out.

Ed Milliband has already been criticised for running a poor campaign in the local and European elections and being generally out of touch with the grassroots of his party and its core vote. Not without good cause, the campaign, much like his tenure as leader has been a farrago of pratfalls and missed opportunities.

The party political broadcast put out by Labour as part of the campaign serves as an example of just how dire things were. Shot in Black and white (ooh arty) it contained every cliché about the coalition presented with the archly smug self-satisfaction with its own brilliance of a sixth form revue. Even for a moribund genre with no audience this marked a stylistic nadir.

What it didn’t contain was the one thing it most needed to, namely some hint of how Britain might be different under a Labour government. This is because after four years in opposition and countless initiatives and consultations the party still has no idea.

A poor showing in Europe and the local elections probably won’t unseat Ed Milliband as leader, not yet anyway, none of his rivals are keen to take over the ship just as the electoral iceberg hoves into view. It will though be one more charge on the rap sheet against him when the recriminations start in May 2015.

This will hold back the important and inevitably painful discussion the party must have about what it stands for and who it seeks to represent. If his unavoidable demise is a return to the Blairite project of being a washed out pink version of the Tories then they might as well be consigned to the vault marked nineties tat and forgotten.

If the success of Ukip has been based on the simplistic message of ‘we’re against’ then Labour and the left in general need to work harder and more courageously at selling a message of their own. Not just articulation what they’re against, but being brave enough to say what they’re for; that socialism isn’t a dirty word or a dead idea, it a means of creating a fairer society.

Ukip rose from nowhere and will soon enough sink back into obscurity, the worst thing about being the poster boys for anything is that sooner or later someone new comes along to take your place. The left needs to be braver in putting forward its alternative because whatever does may well be worse.

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