“Of course we need to win back Labour supporters who voted Tory in May , but if we are to win we also have to understand why so many Labour supporters voted Ukip,” Tom Watson told the assorted faithful at a deputy leadership event held in Dagenham very recently. Only calling them the faithful seems like wishful thinking from a Labour perspective. “Labour is anti-English,” came one response from the crowd. “We are forced into being racist.”
Putting aside the question of how anyone can actually be coerced into genuinely holding unpalatable views short of Ministry of Love style tactics, nothing that was heard from the Essex crowd was all that surprising. Labour drifted away from the working class during the Blair/Brown years in many respects, the result of which is, the working class drifted away from them in return. The corollary of this was seen in Scotland on May 7th of this year; the same thing happening in the north of England might take place in 2020.
Labour seems to think that the way to try and reassert their brand amongst their old supporters is by echoing UKIP sentiment, albeit in a slightly softer form. That’s what Watson’s “we also have to understand why so many Labour supporters voted Ukip” means after you decode it. We were pro-immigration, and that was an error. Come back to us – we’ll kick the bastards out of the country, promise, we’ll just do it in a nicer, centre-leftish sort of a way. What that means in practice, we haven’t worked out yet – but please, give us the benefit of the doubt while we come up with a plan.
This tactic will never, ever will work. If you want to vote for an anti-immigrant party, UKIP will always be a better bet. Labour will continually get beat if they choose to fight the battle on this particularly ground. But the good news for them is that they don’t have to. They can forge an alternate path, one that actually corresponds to their stated values as well.
Throughout the last parliament, Labour went on and on about how bad austerity was, and that cuts were ruining the country. This was being felt particularly by the poorest amongst us (before about a year out from the election saying they’d match Tory cuts, but let’s put that aside for now). And yet, when the Right tried to advance the argument that the poorest in Britain weren’t suffering because of cuts but rather because of mass immigration, Labour immediately caved and said “All right, you may have a point there.” The problem with having done this is a double whammy: one, it traps the party into an anti-immgration stance that none of them like and isn’t convincing. Two, it undermines the “cuts are causing the problems” narrative. Is it immigrants or cuts that are affecting working class communities most, guys? If you don’t know, how do you expect the working class people of Dagenham to?
Labour need to not only ditch the UKIP flavoured stuff pronto, but in fact must fight against it, hard and immediately. Giving in to UKIP’s core argument means you’ve lost the battle for 2020 before it’s even begun. UKIP have a simple answer to peddle to working and underclass communities: get out of Europe, close the borders, everything will be great. Labour need a message of their own: social democracy, done right, will help fix these communities. Now, I’m not really a true believer in the latter message myself (the UKIP one, for the record is total bollocks, however). But surely if Labour are a party of democratic socialists, they must believe that the state can solve the problems faced somewhere like Clacton-on-Sea, a place where immigration can be scapegoated in spite of there being pretty much no immigrants whatsoever (why would immigrants go somewhere in which there is basically no local economy?).
UKIP being a threat to Labour on their old stomping grounds doesn’t mean that Labour have to cave in to UKIP arguments and solutions. If they both try and peddle the same thing, UKIP will win.