The debate about UKIP is hotting up in Labour circles. UKIP are demonstrating they can get past Labourâ€™s defences in a lot of traditional working class communities in a way the Tories never could. A few years ago the purple party were dismissed as â€˜the BNP in blazersâ€™ and a party with an appeal limited to southern leafy shires. Not now.
Now UKIP are genuinely challenging in northern towns like Rotherham and Grimsby and have made enormous progress in Heywood and Middleton from a standing start. Should Labour retain the seat it will be down the wisdom of picking a working class NHS worker from the area and crucially for going for the shortest election period possible â€“ not something that can apply to next May. UKIP aim to be seen as the main opponent of Labour in most of the north of England after the general election and their electoral threat extends to seats in Plymouth, Southampton, Dudley and other areas too.
The Fabian Societyâ€™s Marcus Roberts has twinned up with UKIP expert Rob Ford to look at how UKIP can harm Labour and what it could do about it. Itâ€™s a report worth reading carefully. One bit that caught my eye was in some of the failings of how Labourâ€™s politicians talk:
â€œArguments about political messaging often break down into two categories: soundbites or stories. The New Labour tradition, and that of Clinton Democrats in the USA, is to favour soundbites with short, pithy lines to take that encapsulate big arguments. In contrast, politicians like Labourâ€™s Jon Cruddas, or Obama Democrats, favour a narrative approach in which a bigger argument is made with more words to explain where a problem comes from, how it effects people today and what the future looks like after it has been addressed.â€
Journalist John Harris is blunter still. Writing in the Guardian today about Farageâ€™s appeal he talks of â€˜a great visceral roar of dissent and defiance, channelled through a party whose leader instinctively understands politicsâ€™ more emotional aspects while the people at the top of supposedly mainstream parties have no clueâ€¦Whereas modern politics is fronted by androids who talk in borderline riddles â€“ â€œOne nationâ€, â€œthe big societyâ€ â€“ Ukipâ€™s thinking is presented in appetisingly straightforward terms. â€™
It would be easy to land this at the feet of Labourâ€™s general election co-ordinator of 2010 and today, Douglas Alexander. Schooled in the era of New Labour where it was privately proclaimed that disaffected Labour supporters would â€˜have nowhere else to goâ€™. The party is paying the price for excessively focusing on a narrow strip of Tory-Labour swing voters in southern marginal at the expense of the new â€˜swing votersâ€™ for Labour to appeal to swinging from either voting for Labour, to UKIP or to not voting for anyone at all.
In Douglas Alexanderâ€™s defence, since the lacklustre European Election campaign there has been a more attacks on UKIP, however there has been so far only a limited amount offered to appeal to these defecting voters and the tone just still isnâ€™t right. This problem goes beyond one individual and applies to all those schooled in the New Labourism and perhaps whatâ€™s worse it applies to some in the next generation who have chosen to model themselves on that.
Roberts makes a spirited case for Labour become more of a social movement again. Heâ€™s right but thatâ€™s going to be something that takes some time and not prioritised in the run up to a general election. However some of the policy ideas in the pamphlet could work in the coming months.
Drawing on the â€˜blue Labourâ€™ thinking of Maurice Glasman (but diluted to taste) it includes more housing for local people, ending child benefit being sent overseas, greater emphasis on contribution within social security payments and â€˜fair movementâ€™ rather than â€˜free movementâ€™ across the EU. Now these are all good ideas but theyâ€™re still a touch defensive if you ask me. Labour needs something positive too and in plain language to appeal to workers and not just play catch-up with UKIP.
Kevin Maguire has written about a six point pledge for workers that’s now doing the rounds which as luck would have it would appeal to both Labourâ€™s core voters and to those considering UKIP. These pledges include 1) Pay â€“ a fair rate for the job 2) Law â€“ a defined and fair working week 3) Employer â€“ decent treatment at work 4) Dialogue â€“ the right to be heard 5) Guarantee â€“ rights that are honoured and secured and 6) Enforcement â€“ representation to make your rights count. If Labour backed these and issued them on a ‘workersâ€™ pledge card’ it could challenge the other parties on its own turf.
There are a growing number of answers emerging for how Labour should respond to UKIP, but most of them seem to be happening outside of the official Labour Party channels at the moment. Will the party’s election team get the message in time? As the new Fabian research suggests the outcome of a growing number of seats and the election itself could depend on it.