The Labour your father voted for is back, but it isn’t being led by Ed Miliband
For a time it seemed we had a balance in mainstream British politics; two parties of the Centre Right, and two of the Centre Left. The Greens and Respect are a single issue party and personality cult respectively. Yet this balance is predicated on the view that UKIP is a classic Centre Right party, a view that isn’t a clear cut as it may seem.
On their surface UKIP’s right wing credentials seem impeccable; hostility to the EU, commitment to a strong national defence, deep reservations over immigration, reverence for British institutions, and firm belief in law and order.
Yet it’s only fairly recently that these have become right wing totems. Look back the 60s and 70s and these were all bedrocks of Labour manifestos; Labour opposed membership of the then EEC, Labour supported National Service, Labour voiced the loudest concerns over immigration as British workers were being under cut, Labour were committed to keeping nationalised industries and opposed selling off the ‘national silverwear’, and Labour had traditionally been tough on crime, the effects of which are felt most acutely by the poorest.
Labour underwent a transformation in the 80s that dragged them away from tired socialist dogma and into progressive, metropolitan, Third Way politics which was far more palatable to voters. Blairites were able to make this jump because of a cold, cynical and ultimately accurate calculation; white working class Labour grassroots would always vote Labour because they had nowhere else to go. With the Lib Dems seen as a Middle Class luxury and the Tories being the mortal enemy, Labour’s high command could target the economically responsible but socially liberal, post-ideological portion of the electorate.
And it worked. Between 1992 and 2002 the Tories stood still, desperate not to let Europe tear them apart. When the Conservatives did get around to reforming and rebranding, they found that whereas Labour had the comfort of changing alone, Tories had to share the dressing room with UKIP… and my, wasn’t she pretty?
Thatcherites and social conservatives salivated over this ideologically pure new entity. Even the libertarians in the Conservative Party briefly fell under the spell, though they now seem confined to YI.
But as time has gone on, UKIP has had its fill of disgruntled Tories. Activists and members who were going to defect have already done so, and indeed some have swapped back. UKIP is now attracting two similar but not indistinct critical constituencies; disgruntled Labour and those who’d previously not been politically active.
The Disgruntled Labour voter won’t be an Islington luvvie or student activist, but traditional grassroots Labour from the heartlands of the industrial northern towns. He (and it’ll probably be a he) will be one of those Labour thought they could take for granted. He’ll never vote Tory, but he will be socially conservative in a way modern Labour are not. Most of UKIP’s best parliamentary by-election results have come from traditional Labour strongholds such as South Shields, Hartlepool, Blackburn and Bradford.
The second group is harder to pin down, but there are commonalities. The previously politically inactive will have been inactive because they saw little or no difference between the Big Three parties. UKIP go out of their way to be different, even if this may come back to haunt them later. This previously untapped group of voters has no unified ideology, but has a general exasperation at a system that no longer shares their priorities. Sending billions abroad in aid while making cuts at home is just one example, in their eyes, of a political elite that has lost touch with reality and the views of those they supposedly represent. MPs expenses and the incestuous relationship between politics and the media exacerbate the perceived gap between ruled and rulers, a gap UKIP have gleefully taken advantage of.
Indeed, so well have UKIP played this anti-politics politics role, that every attack sent their way by the media only seems to strengthen them. Their images is increasingly that of the plucky little under dog valiantly battling a Westminster-Media cabal that’s declared war on everything British.
Labour will feel the pinch more than the Tories because Labour are supposedly to be the party of the working man, Labour are supposed to be the anti establishment party, and Labour are supposed to be under dog. For all the stereotypes of UKIP being red faced blazer wearers, Nigel Farage isn’t going to make a dent in the Home Counties, but he just might in Bolton and Rotherham.