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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  • Earlshill

    “London…has a global image as a peaceful and exciting melting pot…” You obviously weren’t in Hackney in August 2011 Mark, as I was. You might have come to a different conclusion……

  • JoeDM

    “It is also a party whose leader has called for the wearing of the veil and the burka to be made illegal.”

    Rather like France then. Seems a sensible move to promoting an integrated secular society to me.

    Why do the left insist on supporting such archaic symbols of regressive and misogynist cultural repression?

    • Poppycock. Women should be free to choose what they want to wear and not have their wardrobe chosen for them by middle-aged white politicians.

      You’ll be wanting to inspect their underwear next.

      • JoeDM

        My wife cannot walk down the High Street naked if she chooses to.

        • rekrab

          There are some things the eye shouldn’t behold.

      • Liberanos

        You’re right. Women should be free to wear what they choose. Like men. They should certainly not be forced by elderly muslim males to wear the uniform of subjugation. But then again, they have to be brave to ignore the rules and face the risk of an acid attack.

    • Hugh

      Why do the right insist on encouraging the government to ban things they disagree with? Banning the burka on the basis of what it is said to represent or symbolise is an extraordinarily bad idea.

      • The left are just as guilty of this. Bans on ‘hate speech’, smoking, etc are precisely the same. There are authoritarians in every party.

      • Mike Oddpiece

        The right? The f**king right????? Were you asleep from 1997 to 2010?

      • LembitOpiksLovechild

        Whereas the left never bans things they don’t like do they? Such as freedom of speech.

    • $6215628

      wearing a mask at a protest or Near Parliament Square is illegal,some shops wont allow people in hoodies in, If people want to wear the burkha then they’ll have to accept they can’t at a protest or go in certain shops

  • Alexwilliamz

    Labour’s response needs to be not to lurch anywhere near UKIP but at the same time recognise some of the issues and begin to show how there are better social democratic/socialist solutions to them. UKIP’s solution will solve nothing and merely drag the country in to a bigger mire.

  • Doctor Yellow Face

    Labours message from the grassroots to the Westminster circle should be to scream and shout the labour message and should seek to dominate the airwaves in the same way that Feril Farage has

  • evad666

    British politics is entering a dangerous phase and Labour should have nothing to do with it.
    Quite right too after all democracy is so damned dangerous.
    Why people will be wanting all sorts of things the intelligencia in Notting Hill and the left couldn’t support.
    Where will it end?

  • Daniel Speight

    Business groups have already made clear that the Government’s ill-conceived crackdown on immigration is harming productivity and competitiveness.

    Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they?

    This is nonsense and just gives ammunition to the likes of UKIP. John Reid gave the game away when he said that in Blair’s cabinet Brown argued and won a more relaxed immigration policy so as to increase the flexibility of the labour market. You are an ex-TUC employee. Doesn’t this increased flexibility sound pretty well anti-labour? We should be aiming at full employment and a demand for labour, not flexibility by immigration.

    If it wants to take on UKIP it’s not immigration where the fight should be. We need to fight and expose them of social services and on low taxation of the rich.

  • evad666

    Having reviewed the comments on the threat UKIP poses to Labour, I suggest you all carry on as usual as the level of disenchantement obviously has not registered yet.

  • PaulBurgin

    From what I have seen there is another factor to take into account and that is the novelty factor. Many voters intrinsically dislike the three main parties and will go for anything remotely charismatic that is new that claims to speak for them! Take the SDP in the early 1980s, or the Greens in the late 1980s! Expose UKIP’s policies in full to the electorate and I suspect they will turn away from them!

  • I don’t see measures that choke Dutch auctions on wages and conditions in the semi and low skilled Labour market as anti-labour.

    The scandal is a neo-liberal party which wants even less employment protection legislation is making hay on this issue through the prism of gutter xenophobia politics.

  • NT86

    What’s so unreasonable about that particular ban? France has since elected a socialist government and I’ve yet to read anything about Hollande repealing it.

    You can’t invoke social liberalism while trying to defend a custom (the Koran simply says that women should dress modestly) that’s steeped in patriarchy and misogyny. UKIP may be socially illiberal in other respects, but I see no problem with that particular policy. Hell, even the Ukrainian group FEMEN have protested against the burka. They’re not exactly UKIP in their outlook.

    Moreover, immigration needs to be robustly regulated whichever government is in power. I thought the labour movement was to protect the employee. The effect of EU migration has led to undercutting of wages and joblessness among British nationals. It is not socially illiberal to raise questions about free movement in the internal market where these disparities occur.

    I wouldn’t vote for UKIP due to their economic policies. But the fact is that they have shifted the goalposts on immigration, and perhaps indirectly multiculturalism (Cameron himself said it had failed) and I daresay that Farage has got it right. The people of Boston think so.

    • But we shouldn’t be allowing our policies to be dictated to by the people of Boston – a seat we have never, ever won, even in 1997

  • Charlie_Mansell

    Adam is right about the shift in values to more socially liberal. The problem is that a significant minority of cultural traditionalists in the UK do not share those values and are now actively rebelling through their politics. For example through their behaviour in moving out of urban areas into more rural home counties areas which the UKIP vote maps well to. Some of us have been expecting this safety and security values driven rebellion for a while: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Publications/Consultation-and-communicationsReport.pdf The big problem is that the socially liberal majority are rubbish at communicating with disaffected cultural traditionalists who make up the UKIP minority and often come across as patronising to them. Public bodies have been having this problem for much of the last decade http://www.download.bham.ac.uk/inlogov/pdfs/communications_research.pdf Fortunately there are now approaches around empathic conversations, authentic advocates, relational organisation and matching words with tangible deeds that can reach out to deeply disaffected voters who hold cultural traditionalist values and feel they are not listened to

  • disqus_KQo7EBrTE1

    This is not just an English problem try and remember that there are other countries in the U.K. However this insular thinking of middle England is just part of the reason for the rise in UKIP. The main problem is the attack on the standard of living of our citizens , until the Party takes the lead in reversing the policies of the working class paying for the mess that multinationals and the city have put us in; by ensuring that they fully pay their way, nothing will change. This thinking; that it’s only by blaming small groups people that our lives will somehow change for the better, will only continue to grow.
    Remember Germany in the 1930s.

  • Hugh

    That was rather my point: it is the right that claims to value individual liberty and limited government. It is therefore ironic to see those on the right call for regulation of people’s dress for purposes of social engineering.

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