Naushabah Khan: I took on UKIP in a by-election – and know we must never be afraid to fight their politics of fear

22nd February, 2017 7:00 am

It is over two years since I stood in the Rochester and Strood by-election, which was prompted by the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP.  And a lot has changed since. Back then Ed Miliband was still leader of our party, the general election was yet to happen, the UK was still a member of the European Union and idea of Donald Trump as president of the US was still a satirical joke confined to an episode of The Simpsons from the year 2000.

On the face of it, the world appears a significantly different place. Just before Labour faces critical by-elections in Stoke and Copeland, however, the similarities with my experiences in Rochester and Strood are evident. Again both elections are high profile with the national media poised and ready to analyse the result and its potential impact on British politics. And, while the 2014 vote was seen as a review of Ed Miliband, and a test case for the upcoming general election, this time the focus is on the political landscape in the post-Brexit world and how Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership fares in its first truly challenging experience at the ballot box.

What also remains unchanged is the challenge to Labour from UKIP – albeit in a different guise – and the tactics they employ. Despite the result of the EU referendum, UKIP continue to scaremonger and scapegoat in order to forge political capital and gain support. In Stoke in particular, where the leader of the party, Paul Nuttall, is standing we continue to see an approach designed to play off different communities against each other and exploit our differences. For instance, billboards have appeared across Stoke, the country’s most pro-Brexit area, claiming that Labour will keep the country in the EU despite the recent vote to trigger article 50, which was supported by the majority of the PLP.

Nuttall’s recent vile and false claims of having “close personal” friends who died in Hillsborough, and the embarrassment over attempts to make it looks as though he was living in Stoke, may have caused enough damage for his chances in this election to be seriously harmed. Labour cannot afford to be complacent, however, when it comes to UKIP who have successfully harnessed support in Labour heartlands, as they attempt to re-position themselves as the party of the “working classes” and distance themselves from establishment.

It is a style of politics that has made Donald Trump popular in the US but the message is a dangerous one. And, just like we do with Trump, we shouldn’t be afraid to expose UKIP for what they are, including the fact they are unashamedly aligned to the American president and his politics of hate and prejudice. It may feel unpopular at times but we must stand up for what we believe in and not allow the UKIP-led lies and scapegoating to dictate the narrative of these elections.

It is also vital we begin to recognise why UKIP have harnessed support amongst our traditional vote. Much of this stems from people’s insecurities over the world they live in, largely in towns and areas outside London where many feel that successive governments have let them down while their communities have changed dramatically. This has led to an emotional response to the immigration debate and left many searching for a sense of identity and direction, as well as a recognition that someone understands this plight. Labour has thus far failed to offer these communities a sense of hope or understanding, leaving room for others to exploit these fears.

This perceived disconnect with the communities that we have traditionally represented was evident on the door-step in Rochester and Strood, but it was also embodied in one tweet that created a media storm during that by-election. Helpfully it looks as though the party has made progress in recognising that embracing this sense of identity and being able to support people’s pride in Englishness are views that are not at odds with Labour values. The recent literature in the Stoke by-election that displays the St George’s flag with pride is clear example of this and hopefully a turning point in taking the challenge to UKIP.  

We know that pride in our communities, justice, fairness, protecting the vulnerable and a clear view that your economic background should never be the reason why you are held behind are fundamental principles of the Labour party. They are the very reason why many of us get out of bed every day and why continue to fight for a fairer more equal society and a government in power that is able to deliver this. We should never be ashamed of our roots and we should certainly never concede this space to a far-right party such as UKIP.

So what advice, if any, would I give to the candidates in the upcoming elections? Well do not allow UKIP to set the standard, do not be afraid to challenge them head on and do not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, even if it may not reflect the popular mood. This is no easy feat especially when you are in the centre of high-profile, highly-pressurised election but it is vital that we do not miss this opportunity. A win in Stoke will certainly create the momentum for a Labour fightback against UKIP, so it is vital we get this right.

Naushabah Khan is a Labour councillor in Medway and a former parliamentary candidate.

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