Ignoring Ukip isn’t just an electoral mistake: it is a moral one too

Polly Billington

Farage Miliband

So the conversation goes:

Labour supporter/friend/strategist: What’s the majority you need to overturn?

Me: 92

Labour supporter: Oh you’ll be fine then

Me: There’s a UKIP issue ….

Labour supporter: Oh then you’re doubly fine!! UKIP are much more of a threat to the Tories than to you!!

I think, if they dared, some of these “strategists” would pat me on the head, and tell me not to worry my pretty little head about these things. Fortunately my patience hasn’t (yet) had to stretch to that. But it is wearing thin anyway. And it’s not just about the votes.

There has been much talk about the way UKIP impacts on the votes of the three main parties, since the European and local elections in May. Much has been written here on LabourList as increasingly people are starting to become aware of the electoral reality for Labour in many seats, both currently held and ones, like Thurrock where I am standing, which we need to win. Some wise heads like Luke Akehurst have advised calm and given strategic advice which acknowledges the issue. This is welcome but still rare.

It is without doubt true, as Conor Pope wrote, that being complacent about UKIP would be electoral suicide. But it is morally reprehensible too.

The people who are most likely to vote UKIP in my community have had a rough old time of it. They have seen secure jobs being replaced by agency work, decent pay and conditions disappear as relentless “restructuring” and “flexibility” eat into their ambitions for themselves and their families. In a community of dockers and truckers, retailers and warehouse staff, there is no doubt that the winds of globalisation blow harshly here. And rapid change makes people who have fought hard for some security anxious and fearful for the future.

Writing them off as either racists or non-voters is morally hollow. It also abandons them and their anxieties to be exploited by the Right. If we aren’t for those who get stuffed by global change who are we for? Over the last 30 years their modest expectations for security and a holiday, a car and a better life for their kids, have become harder to achieve. Do we just say: there’s more competition – deal with it? I will leave that to the Tories thanks.

UKIP is peddling simplistic answers that we should counter: not by spending our time pointlessly factually correcting people, but by having a conversation based on hope. UKIP’s politics of despair is based on a zero-sum games of jobs, public services and homes – where the country doesn’t just freeze but turns the clock back. Or, depending who they are talking to, would introduce a flat tax rate for all, charge you for your GP, and abolish many of our hard-fought-for employment rights like paid holidays and maternity leave. Like the Tories only more so.

More and better jobs, homes and quality public services is the right mantra that will build on our cost-of-living message and counter this despair. But we also need to show we “get it” when it comes to the disjuncture between the risks the world poses and way our current system protects people – or not.

Rachel Reeves’ suggestions of changing the welfare system to require contribution before benefits can be claimed speaks to the worries of many, and reflects our own values of decency. The Fabian society’s most recent pamphlet proposing social insurance cards suggest practical approaches to the problem. We have never been a party that has as a principle that benefits are available to all who rock up. These reforms would probably require changes to EU rules, and we should be able to have those conversations in a constructive way that eludes David Cameron. His failure in Europe is because he isn’t driven by a set of values but by political expediency.

Establishing a system of social security that you can trust has been a success for Labour in the past, and tackling that head on again could be once more. We can confidently talk about a social security system that reflects your contribution, where we know and respect our neighbours and their efforts to get on, rather than live suspecting all around us of working a system that doesn’t work for us.

UKIP want to say to people the only way to protect you from those risks is to turn your back on the world, with no thought to the horrendous economic consequences of becoming a small-state free-market island, a low-rent sweatshop on the edge of Europe.

My community has changed rapidly over the last 15 to 20 years or so, and the anxiety that can grow from that is being exploited by UKIP. Labour is and always has been the party of decency for working people, and right now that means connecting people to their own ambitions through practical, achievable things we will do that will create opportunity and security. These ambitions cross the boundaries of race and language (and indeed class), which enable us to bring people together ti build solidarity and a strong community of shared values. To abandon some of our potential voters to the politics of despair isn’t just daft and cynical, it’s wrong.

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