Tuesday, 27 May 2014

After an Earthquake, reconstruction

So now we’ve had the earthquake in Britain. UKIP topped the poll for the European elections. We know the worst, and we know its extent.

After an earthquake, the first task is rescue and recovery. But actually this one wasn’t that scary. It’s nasty to see success for a party which, while strenuously declaring itself to be neither racist nor homophobic, somehow keeps turning up spokespeople who express thoroughly racist and homophobic views. Nevertheless, these were elections for the European Parliament, and though UKIP ran a campaign claiming that 75% of our legislation is made in the EU, the reality is that power still remains in London.

Victory in a forum which exerts little power over us? It’s not as catastrophic as success in Westminster elections would have been.

So no rescue or recovery. Instead we move straight to the next phase: reconstruction. And there we certainly have a lot of work to do.

While UKIP came top, it took just over 2% more of the vote than Labour. The last time the elections were held, in 2009, Labour fared miserably; it has rebounded into a perfectly respectable position. It has even forced the Conservatives into third place. That’s the first time they’ve fallen so low in a national poll. Not the first time for ages, the first time ever, in their entire history.

All that’s good. What’s much more worrying is that Labour took under 1.5% more of the vote than the Conservatives. That’s far too anaemic a lead for an Opposition party a year out from a general election: there tends to be a swing back towards government in the last few months and Labour is perilously close to losing its lead.

It isn’t clear whether that wisdom remains true in the new environment created by UKIP, with four parties in contest. Or five, if we include the Greens, and we should, since they overtook the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the present government, last week. 

Maybe there will be less of a resurgence of government popularity in these circumstances than in the past, but I don’t think Labour should rely on that faint hope. Especially as a lot of UKIP supporters in these elections are likely to return to backing the Conservatives next year.

No, reconstructing a politics in Britain based on simple liberalism and tolerance is going to depend on Labour taking positive action itself. And the big question is going to be, what sort of action?

Commentators are all saying that UKIP’s success is going to force the other parties to consider its agenda more seriously. And that agenda has just two points: anti-immigration and anti-EU. The Tories will find it easy to move closer to those positions, but what about Labour?

Ed Miliband's task for Labout
win support back from UKIP without adopting its positions

Adopting a similarly little-England and xenophobic stance would be wrong in itself. Labour stands for inclusiveness and for international collaboration. Coming down hard on immigrants and opposing the EU means betraying fundamental principles.

But in any case it would do Labour no good. If I’m going to vote for a party which has those views, why would I vote for one that has only adopted them recently and doesn’t really believe in them? I might as well vote for the real thing. No, Labour needs to do something much harder. It needs to take on the UKIP discourse and show how profoundly misguided it is.

It has to argue the case for the EU, a reformed EU by all means, but the EU all the same; and it has to argue the case for Europe’s open borders – surely one of the great extensions of human liberty the European experiment has given us. And also deeply necessary, at a time when we need immigration to shore up an ageing workforce.

Labour needs to argue that case with conviction to win back enough supporters from those tempted by UKIP to give it a 5 or 6 point lead. That would be sufficient. But it isn’t going to be easy.

Put off by the scale of the challenge? 

Marine le Pen: the French have a real, devastating earthquake
Think of our friends in France. There the elections were won by a Front National which even UKIP is shy of, because of its racism. And the Socialists, far from coming second, came a poor third, massively diminished by a weak and ineffective President Hollande.

At least reconstructing after our own earthquake is a much more manageable task.


Michelle Abbott said...

Great post. I agree 100% with your views.

David Beeson said...

Many thanks - I appreciate your taking the time to say so