British politics is entering a dangerous phase and Labour should have nothing to do with it

7th May, 2013 7:57 am

UKIP’s rise is a mid-term protest vote that could turn into a disaster for British politics.  There is a real risk now that all the main parties will be dragged towards Farage’s social and cultural illiberalism in an effort to shore up their vote.  This will be highly damaging for the UK and Labour should have no part in it.

UKIP is a classic right wing populist party that opportunistically plays on the fears (some understandable but many misplaced) about social and cultural change.  This is a party which has made it clear that it sees campaigns against immigration and gay marriage as central to its electoral strategy. It is also a party whose leader has called for the wearing of the veil and the burka to be made illegal.

However, voices are already emerging in Labour calling for the Party to mimic UKIP’s mentality.  In addition, there are strands in the Party who do not for one minute share UKIP’s outlook but whose flirtation with strong notions of community and English identity could easily create the context in which Farage’s brand of bluff intolerance flourishes. Even the current nostalgia for post-war Labour politics could promote admiration for a period that combined greater equality with firm, shared values of ‘faith, family and flag’ with all that meant for attitudes to ‘outsiders’.

So, we should be very clear about what could happen if this deeply illiberal party is allowed to set the political agenda.

Firstly, the greater respect and rights secured by women, gay people, black people and many other groups over the last forty years will be brought into question. Hopefully we may never get to the stage where such hard won freedoms are actively rolled back but the very fact that a party which harbours a deep dislike of such ‘political correctness’ is determining the new mainstream makes it more likely.

There is a risk that social divisions which have been relatively peaceful since the 1980s could re-emerge.  Public debate which legitimises mistrust of immigrant communities and which wrongly blames them for our deep economic ills could easily encourage community fracturing and conflict.

A popular shift to the illiberal right would also damage economic recovery.  Business groups have already made clear that the Government’s ill-conceived crackdown on immigration is harming productivity and competitiveness. The likelihood of an even harsher and panicky tightening in response to the UKIP threat would exacerbate the problem.

Moreover, the UK benefits enormously from its reputation as a tolerant, diverse and vibrant nation. London, in particular, has a global image as a peaceful and exciting melting pot that many cities around the world, desperate to attract overseas investment, envy. It would be tragic to damage this while leading other cities and towns outside the South East into thinking there is any economic future in pulling up the drawbridge.

Since the 1960s, Labour and the left have been far better at upholding liberal values on social and cultural matters than the self-proclaimed Classical Liberals of the right. For all the economic errors Labour governments have made (and there’s been a few), the long term record on extending rights and freedoms to an ever wider group of citizens is something to be proud of.

The Party must remember that public attitudes have been shifting towards a more socially liberal position for many years. It must also remember that with the exception of immigration not even UKIP voters regard its socially illiberal positions as a key factor in securing their support.

At a time of risk to some of its most important achievements, Labour must stand firm and not inadvertently fan the flames of intolerance.

Adam Lent is the former Head of Economics at the TUC and co-author of In the Black Labour.

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