Andrew Thorpe-Apps urges Conservatives to listen to the concerns of ordinary folk.
UKIP gained a staggering 139 Councillors in the recent local elections, surpassing the dreams of even its most ardent supporters. Predictably, the Party received much support from former lifelong Tory voters. Yet UKIP also picked up substantial numbers of ‘protest votes’ that would previously have gone to Liberal Democrats. Interestingly, the Party even performed well in traditional Labour areas, coming second in the South Shields by-election. UKIP, it seems, is here to stay.
There has been much talk of the ‘UKIP effect’ on the Conservatives. To some extent this is unfair – UKIP are a separate, and now well established, Party with very distinct policies from the Tories. They are now more than a mere protest Party. UKIP have a full range of policies, many of which are rooted in common sense and, as the local elections showed, very attractive to the public. The fact that these policies have a £120billion hole in the middle of them should, of course, be kept in mind.
But looking forward to 2015, what lessons must David Cameron learn from Friday’s results? The Conservatives can take some heart from the fact that, despite UKIP’s surge, they did not lose as many Councillors as some predicted. Further, Labour gained control over only two new Councils, and have not fully recovered from their 2009 drubbing. It could even be argued that UKIP only did as well as they did due to the abysmal turnout. Yet despite these crumbs of comfort, the Conservatives must take heed of the clear message from the electorate.
An important point to note is that David Cameron need not suddenly become a great Eurosceptic. In the same way that many Scots vote SNP, despite not actually favouring Scottish independence, so too many people vote UKIP without having a strong opinion on EU membership. Consistently, the two most important issues on the doorstep are immigration and the cost of living.
UKIP have strong messages on both of these issues: Keep out unwanted migrants by regaining control of our borders, and put money back in people’s pockets by introducing a modest, flat-rate of tax.
Immigration is a stumbling block for the Conservatives. Ironically, and considering the shambolic system that the Tories inherited from Labour, the Party actually has a good record on this. Since coming to office, they have reduced net migration by a third, and have capped the number of people employers are allowed to bring to the UK from outside the EU. Yet due to EU rules on freedom of movement, the UK Government cannot legally stop migration from other member states.
The Conservatives must limit non-EU immigration as far as possible. The target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands by 2015 must be kept. Conservatives must also ensure that foreign students return home after their courses have finished, and clamp down on bogus students – counting people out of the country must become common practice. There should be an emphasis on encouraging and training British nurses and doctors, rather than poaching staff from abroad. Legislation must be enacted to allow for terrorists to be deported far more efficiently, though the right to appeal must remain.
In terms of limiting Romanian and Bulgarian immigration from 2014 onward, strict rules are needed to ensure that these individuals will not be able to claim benefits until they have paid UK tax. There should also be a mechanism for sending these nationals back home if they cannot find work within three months of their arrival. The UK Government should be willing to defy EU law where this is necessary. If the UK cooperates with like-minded member states in putting together measures to limit this potential mass migration, it will be difficult for the European Commission to impose punishment for the bending of free movement rules.
The second major issue on the doorstep – the cost of living – is difficult to solve in the short term. Finding full-time work is difficult, people are receiving negligible interest on their savings, and inflation is pushing food and fuel prices ever higher.
UKIP favours a single combined rate of income tax and national insurance paid by all workers, set at perhaps 25 or 31 per cent. The simplicity and prima facie fairness of a flat rate of tax is inescapable. However, it would inevitably mean, despite what Nigel Farage may claim, that those on lower incomes would pay more than they do today. At a time when public services are being scaled back, is it really justifiable to expect the poorest to pay more? UKIP’s greatest support is amongst the C2 income group – the group that would lose out most under a flat tax system. Interestingly, both Bulgaria and Romania have flat tax systems, set at 10 and 16 per cent respectively.
A flat tax will be desirable when the state is a great deal smaller. But for the time being, and particularly during this period of austerity, the progressive tax system must remain. However, the top rate should be limited to a maximum of 33 per cent, and other bands similarly cut. The plan to bring the income tax threshold up to £10,000 must be brought forward. These tax cuts will provide stimulus to the ailing economy.
Taking measures such as these will help to bring many disaffected Conservative voters back into the fold. The days when UKIP could be brushed aside as ‘clowns’ or ‘fruitcakes’ are long gone.