While some Labourites might be celebrating the Tories’ discomfort over Europe, Labour must learn some lessons too. Lord Ashcroft’s research on UKIP considerers reveals that almost a quarter of those currently considering UKIP voted Labour in 2010. UKIP’s support is underpinned by a strong showing amongst C1s and C2s, the very groups which drag down Labour’s vote – workers towards the bottom end of the pay scale, struggling to get by with increased living costs, while a difficult business climate and redundancy continue to threaten. What Ashcroft has usefully revealed is that Europe is not the top concern amongst potential UKIP voters: only a quarter of UKIP considerers put Britain’s relationship with the EU as one of the top three issues facing Britain, and only 7% put it top. The biggest issues are economic growth, welfare, immigration and the deficit.
Ashcroft’s message to the Tories is this: don’t think that a referendum is the answer to the UKIP surge. It isn’t, because that’s not really the problem. Only hardcore UKIP supporters who were already voting that way before the current upswing are concerned above all else with Britain’s relationship in Europe. UKIP considerers are pessimistic, see Britain as getting worse over time, and are attracted by UKIP’s promise of an easy answer that will solve everything. Concerns about money going to Europe, and into international aid, are pieces of the picture they have built up of a political elite which does not share their values. The biggest area of disconnect is immigration, where UKIP’s policy attracts much higher support than its policy of leaving the EU. Let’s not tear ourselves apart on Europe, Ashcroft is saying to the Conservatives. Get it right on immigration, welfare and the economy, and the rest will follow.
So what would the message be to Labour? On a referendum, the same: if it won’t help the Conservatives, it won’t help us either. One interesting nugget in Ashcroft’s research is that UKIP considerers don’t see UKIP as the best people to defend Britain’s interests in Europe. There is an awareness that voting UKIP is a protest vote to send a message rather than a vote for a party that can actually act in their interests. Cameron’s use of the veto, ill-advised though it was, brought support for a British exit down from above 50% to 41%, according to YouGov research quoted by John Curtice, while support for remaining in the EU increased from 31% up to a level 41%. If people see evidence of British politicians actively fighting for British interests in Europe, they are more likely to accept the idea of Britain remaining within it.
By promoting British interests actively in Europe, Labour can secure better terms for British businesses and push for reform where it’s needed. Douglas Alexander was clear what reforms Labour has in mind in his Chatham House speech, given the day before Cameron was scheduled to deliver his speech in Amsterdam: tighter transitional arrangements around free movement of labour, more budgetary restraint, and reform of structural funding and the CAP are all part of it.
But since Europe in voters’ minds is not an issue separate from all others, talking about Europe will not work in isolation: we need to demonstrate that we understand broader concerns about immigration and welfare, accept where we went wrong in power, and have solid plans for what we would do to restrict abuses in both these areas. And as for the economy, the message is the same for Europe as it is for Britain: austerity isn’t working. We need a plan for jobs and growth, as much in the EU as nationally, and the reason why things have not gone well is because Europe’s leaders have not delivered this plan.
Ashcroft advises his party not to worry too much about a UKIP rout in the 2014 European elections. Our attitude must be different. In opposition, our job is to gain support step by step at every opportunity between now and 2015. The more votes we win in 2014, the more we will win in 2015, and those currently considering UKIP include exactly the kinds of voters whose support we need for a victory at Westminster.