The post election analysis-fest has provided a helpful summary of most of the wrong responses to UKIP. Many of these responses fall into the comfortable category of ‘this only confirms what I’ve always believed!’ For some, the big vote for UKIP – a self-proclaimed right wing party – shows there is no audience for a more radical Labour party. For some, the same disconcerting support means that a liberal, internationalist party like Labour should not give an inch on migration, welfare or Europe for fear of conceding hard-won progressive gains. For others, any notion of progressive patriotism, community or national story is dangerous nonsense.
These are all very different responses, but they are all wrong. They share the simple error of listening to what UKIP says, rather than listening to their voters. Having spent the last few weeks in Eastleigh and county elections across southern England, I’ve done rather a lot of listening. Let me share a few thoughts.
Firstly, most of the UKIP voters I have met are people I would like my Labour Party to attract and represent. Sure, they’ve attracted their fair share of people with pretty vile views – including some of their candidates – but most who vote for them strike me as the sort of hard-working, community minded, want their kids to do well, sort of people our party was built on.
Secondly, when they complain, they’ve often got something to complain about. I have no hesitation in saying that the pace with which my home city, Southampton, changed through migration over the past 15 years was too far and too fast to be comfortable. There’s nothing illiberal in saying that there is a limit to how fast people can be expected to respond to the changing use of public services, neighbourhoods changed from family housing to HMOs, a growth in agency working or the undermining of trade union influence in major employers.
Thirdly, whatever Nigel Farage might say, these voters’ views cannot simply be categorised as right wing. Many would support Jacobin justice against bankers and tax avoiders like Starbucks; if not explicitly pro-union, they want stability and fairness back in a workplace that has become steadily more insecure. They are appalled when they hear that Eurosceptics want to get rid of existing employment laws. Even on migration, the woman who told me last week ‘I don’t care who comes here as long as they work and pay taxes’ is not as untypical as you might think.
Fourthly, trying to counter fears with facts is tough going when the audience doesn’t trust the messenger. Because they blame ‘the governing classes’ for all this change, they are sceptical when we say we are dealing with a problem, or that the problem – like access to social housing – is wildly exaggerated. And they don’t think we understand the issues where there is a major problem. We can fool ourselves that ‘it would be alright if only they understood the truth’ but not them.
Fifthly, they care about their country. They care about where it’s going and how it’s changing. And at the moment they are pretty pessimistic, for themselves and their children.
I can’t see any reason why a centre-left party can’t mount a pretty serious appeal for voters like these. I would be worried if we couldn’t, and most of the core elements are already taking shape in Ed Miliband’s politics. From migration to apprenticeships, responsible capitalism to reining in the banks and the utility companies, ‘One Nation’ is founded on the belief in a positive British future. The radical changes in the party’s approach to community organising holds the best prospect of rebuilding trusted relationships with voters – and this can be done much more quickly than most people think.
But we should also understand the problem. Above all many people fear we don’t share their fears or concerns. They think that, at best, we demonstrate lofty liberal focus group driven calculations of what we should be heard to say. Let’s be clear; if we don’t feel it, they won’t believe it.
John Denham is the MP for Southampton Itchen