As the dissection into UKIP’s electoral success continues, a predictable panic has began to set in amongst Tory activists across the country. I don’t blame them. But despite the temptation to sit back and enjoy the schadenfreude, the Labour party cannot afford to simply hope that those on the right wing of politics tear themselves apart.
UKIP’s rise is unprecedented. They are contesting seats with virtually no money and no resources other than the copious amount of airtime afforded to them by the BBC. Their message knows no class boundaries. They are as strong in the shires are as they are in the inner cities. By April 2015 Nigel Farage may well have a case for why he deserves more of a place in the Leader’s debates than Nick Clegg (so I suppose every cloud has a silver lining and all that!).
For Labour, questions are being raised as to how we beat them. A consensus seems to be emerging that Labour will only win the next General Election if over the course of the next year we present a plethora of policies to the electorate.
Of course fully costed policies are the lifeblood of any party with serious aspirations for Government, but they are not the foundations. Before anyone bothers to begin reading up on the minutia of our education, welfare or immigration policies, they want to know who we are standing up for and what our values are. I don’t think this can be underestimated on the doorstep.
As I see it, we are currently living in deeply political times. Despite disappointing turnout figures and the usual print press rhetoric, more people than ever are actively engaging in the political process. The rise of cyber democracy through direct routes such as epetitions and the growth in on-line political debate has resulted in more people than ever being made aware of the latest news from Westminster as it is downloaded straight to their iPhone App or splashed across twitter.
The key for Labour in the next few months is not necessarily the detailed formulation of all our policies for 2015, but more broadly, what we stand for and the way in which we communicate it to the electorate. The right wing bias inherent within our press means that we will never be given a fair crack of the whip in outlining policy ideas, but declining circulation figures present us with the opportunity to counter this tabloidisation using modern media techniques to present Labour values and ideas in much the same way that the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 demonstrated.
Take the industry that I know well for instance; construction. White van drivers across this country have become increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party. We’ve all heard the complaints a thousand times, “The problem is Steve, these immigrant workers are coming over here and nicking all our jobs. They are willing to work longer hours for less money so construction site bosses give them the work and I’m the one losing out. What you going to do about it”?
It’s a fair point. In my constituency of Walton, the construction sector is one of the biggest employers. Hence, due to the economic downturn, we are contending with a dole queue that is 5,124 people deep.
More often than not, I ask the laid off construction worker what he thinks the answer is. “Get rid of the immigrants so I can go back to work” he invariably replies. Some believe we should pull up the draw bridge, leave the European Union and put every Eastern European migrant on the next flight back to Warsaw and Kiev.
Really? Are the immigrants the ones who are causing all of the problems? Well, Nigel et al would argue that they are. Immigrants, in an anti-immigrant Britain, are not the most powerful individuals. By extension they don’t have much in the way of an effective political voice. “Hard luck” you might say. Short sighted I’d say.
Ed Miliband is right to view this problem as top down rather than bottom up. Immigrants cannot be blamed for their own exploitation. If any construction worker honestly believes that if every Eastern European immigrant left the country tomorrow that they would go back to work, earning a good wage with holiday pay and sick pay, then I have one word for you…blacklisting.
Long before (to paraphrase); “the last Labour Government just opened the doors to the Poles and Lithuanians”, construction site bosses were blacklisting British workers for whistleblowing on health and safety issues. Simply by pointing out that someone could be killed on an unsafe scaffold may well have resulted in a person being blacklisted.
We have to listen to the concerns of British workers in the way that Farage does and then communicate our message in a manner which is accessible and understandable to ordinary people. Bur first we have to win the argument that we are the only party in British politics that can both identify the real problems they face and effectively solve it in the best interest of the disillusioned voters.
Once we do that we might have a chance to change the terms of the debate in a way that party’s ready for Government so often manage to do. We can expose the fact that UKIP will never be able to change the welfare system, because they will never control the department for work and pensions. UKIP will never be able to change our relationship with the European Union because they will never control the foreign office. And UKIP will never address climate change, because they don’t believe in it. Whatever off-the–shelf policies they eventually buy to plug the gaps in other key areas, they will never get the chance to implement them – and that is why they are so dangerous but also so beatable.
My advice to party members and activists is don’t be afraid on the doorstep. Be bullish, be frank and be honest. That doesn’t mean being permanently apologetic either, by the way.
In May 2010 the Labour Party didn’t stop being the party that believed in solidarity over selfishness. We didn’t stop being the party that puts the needs of the many ahead of the few. And we didn’t stop being the party of compassion and ambition. No Labour Party member or activist needs a policy document or Shadow Cabinet Minister to tell them that. Social justice is in our DNA.
The truth is, the party needs to be more frank and in doing so, we will galvanise our membership and earn the respect and the trust of the British people.
Let’s start with this; in the last thirty years, Britain has never elected a one term Government. It has become the norm in Britain to elect Governments for generations. That in part has been a result of the total collapse of the ousted Government post-election defeat. But it has also been a result of the British people giving parties the benefit of the doubt and a second chance to get things right.
So in essence, what Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is attempting to do is to condense an average of 15 years worth of work, into the space of just five. That’s tough. But it is a testament to Ed that in the space of just three years, the official Opposition is in the strongest position of any political party who has suffered at the ballot box in its first term out of Government.
So there is plenty of reason for Labour members to be optimistic. Yes we need to flesh out the meat on the bone and members are right to suggest that now is the time to do it. We know the issues that matter most so we need to organise in a way that we can spread Labour’s message about fairness, solidarity, compassion and ambition working as one.
If we stand up for the party then we will change the terms of the debate, convince the British people and be ready to govern again. If members have the stomach for the fight than we will inspire Britain again and just like historical flashes in the political pan like the SDP, UKIP will be gone forever.