Sunday, 12 October 2014


And so the world moves on and yet things are not quite the same.

I wrote before the Referendum vote about how a certain sector of the Yes vote were voting not against the Union but against the real world.

Thursday's Heywood and Middleton by-election showed that this is far from a purely Scottish phenomenon although the beneficiary on this occasion was a different populist politician.

No matter how Labour try to spin this, it was a shocking result. 

Sure, our percentage share increased (just) but it increased only from the vote we had secured in our worst ever performance in the seat (we even did better in 1983) and on Thursday past it increased, even then, almost negligibly when we must surely have had some significant benefit from the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, It can't be the case that all of these Libs were previously nothing but "neither of the above" voters, 

The suggestion therefor that all that happened was that the anti Labour vote simply rearranged itself is derisory and anybody making it should be ashamed of themselves.

No, on any view, a signicant number of people who had always voted Labour chose to vote UKIP and an even larger number were sufficiently unconcerned about a potential UKIP advance in the seat(which by polling day was no secret) that they felt no need to vote at all.

So, what is to be done?

Well, firstly, we need to accept that something actually needs to be done. That's not as much of a "bloody obvious" point as it might initially appear.

Let us be clear, the calculation of the Labour leadership has been that, if we could get 35% of the national popular vote,  then UKIP cutting in to the Tory vote might deliver us an absolute Westminster majority from that paltry level of support. That calculation has always been a shameful one. 

If disillusionment with traditional politics is at the root of the UKIP surge then how much more disillusioned would people be if they found themselves on 8th May 2015 under the elected dictatorship of a Party with a mandate from barely one third of those who voted and, depending on turnout, perhaps as little as 20% of the total electorate? A Party indeed that had made little more than a token effort to get elected in large parts of the Country and relied instead on the systemic by-product of a nod and a wink to those who wished to abandon the Tories (The Tories!!!) as not right wing enough?

Yet that is where we had found ourselves and indeed it meant that while we were free among ourselves to quietly be contemptuous of Farage and all his works, our public message was essentially that UKIP were (just) right wing Tories. That was supposed to be the only message needed to our voters to keep them out of Nigel's clutches while at the same time giving a green light to those who actually were right wing Tories to go ahead and vote UKIP. Under First Past the Post, we calculated, every vote lost by the Tories to anybody was effectively a vote gained by us. 

Except UKIP are not (just) right wing Tories. As is common with all such insurgencies matters are altogether more complicated.

First of all it is important to set out what they are not.

They are not an overtly racist Party. That's not to say that some of them are not racists or that they do not attract the "racist vote" such as it is. Whoever benefited from the collapse of  the Lib Dem vote in Heywood there is no such doubt of the destination of the 5% who had previously voted BNP. BUT racism is not the raison d'etre of UKIP. It is simply nonsensical to suggest that 40% of the population of Heywood (and 60%  of the population of Clacton) have recently become racists. 

And, equally, UKIP are not really about leaving the EU. Again that's not to say they don't want to leave the EU but simply to observe that leaving the EU is not the only, indeed possibly not even the main, reason people vote for them. They are in reality against "modernity". The EU is simply that modernity in one easily focused upon form.

For that's what UKIP are really about. About a return to earlier times. A time certainly when your passport was blue but also a time when men only married women and vice versa; when Johnny foreigner might be a perfectly nice, if inevitably slightly inferior, chap you would encounter on holiday but not someone you met routinely on your own High Street; a time however most importantly of all when, as an ordinary person at least, you knew that the next generation would be better off than your own. 

For that was the experience of the long post war boom. Sure, their was some turbulence in the late seventies and early eighties but Mrs T "fixed" things and for another twenty five years or so this happy circumstance continued. Until 2008. And since 2008 Labour has been so worried about the reputation for economic management then lost that we have tried to say as little as possible about the economy at all. If you promise nothing then you can't be attacked for making wild promises, The problem is that promising nothing is never likely to be much of a motivator to potential (or even dyed-in-the-wool) Labour voters.

And that's the problem and the challenge with UKIP. Just as it was part of the problem in grappling with a different group of snake oil merchants here in Scotland less than a month back

Sure UKIP's policies are incoherent. Lower taxes combined with various public spending promises from a bigger army through to a higher old age pension. More housebuilding but absolute protection of the greenbelt. And of course, not forgetting, free trade with Europe without actually being subject to any of the rules that others have to observe for that privilege. It's all mutually contradictory nonsense. Anybody who saw Ken Clarke on Friday's Channel 4 News would have seen made flesh the frustration of the traditional political class that people can't just "see" this.

But of course most people can. No matter how far UKIP go nobody suggests they will come as much as second in the popular vote next May and it remains a moot point whether they will even be third. But we surely can't now deny that those who are blind to these economic realities are not simply retired colonels from the home counties. 

So the fact that UKIP have support from, even some, traditional Labour voters should be a concern to us. Not least because, even sticking to  a 35% strategy, it is not just UKIP we are up against. It is also apathy.

What these UKIP voters are seeking is hope Even as we protest that Farage brings nothing but false hope we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that in turning away from Labour these voters are consciously blind to the cautionary adjective. For we, the Labour Party, are so keen to secure respectability for our "sound economics" while threatening nothing in terms of tax increases to avoid offending anybody at all that we have fallen into a trap of our own making. 

In short, too many of our traditional supporters perceive that we are offering them no hope at all.

There remains, I am afraid, simply no enthusiasm for the Labour project.

On of my pals was on Tony Blair's staff during the 1997 General Election and speaks about scenes towards the end that he could only compare to film he had seen of the allied liberation of western Europe. People leaning out of windows and gathering on the street to spontaneously cheer the Labour entourage as it entered town after town in what was still officially marginal middle England. 

But we shouldn't forget that on a different battle bus, John Prescott, touring our heartlands was being received just as energetically. For we hadn't just won over the middle ground, we had enthused the core vote as well. More than 57% in Heywood and Middleton. That "weigh the vote" might not have been as important to the parliamentary arithmetic but it was certainly important to the high morale in which we eventually entered power.

Suffice to say that core vote is not currently enthused. Far from it.

Certainly we have to be realistic and responsible in our policy offer but if it depends entirely on a strategy not of hope but of calculation then we should not be surprised if more Heywood's lie ahead.

Yet the leadership's response is to aim at the wrong target. To assume (or at least to calculate) that this really is about immigration and Europe and that if we talk tough on both somehow it will all be alright. 

This is wrong on just about every level.

Firstly, it simply legitimises the UKIP cause, If we concede that these are truly the source of many of our woes then why not vote for a Party that will really do something about it rather than one which addresses the matter half heartedly?

Secondly, most of our own supporters understand the what limited prosperity we do have, and indeed the viability of our jewel in the crown achievement, the NHS, actually depends on the European single market including the free movement not just of capital but of labour. What are they meant to think if we abandon that ground?

Thirdly, not unimportantly, we actually agree with most of our supporters on that. Even if it was possible to rein back on European integration and immigration (and truthfully, without outright withdrawal it is difficult to see how that could be done) do we actually think that would be a good thing? If we don't and are just saying it to get elected one can't help feeling we would only be swapping one problem for another. Anyway, political parties are expected to stand for something and those who are perceived to stand for nothing seldom prosper. Ask the Lib Dems.

But finally, most importantly of all, none of this gives anybody a positive reason to vote Labour and, as I say, that is the real reason our traditional base is unenthused. Farage is not the illness, he is just one of the symptoms.

And that brings me back to 1997. It is not to dismiss the very real achievements of that Labour Government to recall how nervous we were then as well at being perceived as weak on the management of the economy. And how limited our policy offer was in consequence on traditional tax and spend. I readily confess too weak for my taste at the time.

But we offered something else in 1997. We offered empathy and we offered  hope. And having secured the empathy we could survive that the hope, at least initially, was not of much more than a change of tone. 

That's where things are going wrong at the moment. We appear to have no empathy with our own supporters. To be a metropolitan elite much more interested in what a Labour Government would bring to us than in what it would mean to them. That's why "hang on six months for a Labour Government" proved not a silver but a chocolate bullet when fired in the referendum campaign.

Without empathy there cannot be hope. And without hope.....

And it is that which needs addressed. Not the British (or Scottish) isolationist symptom but the Labour illness. 

Time for radical treatment.


  1. Scottish European Elections

    Weren't you gleeful about Ukip taking a seat Scotland?

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  2. Minor Blip in the 70's........even with 40 years it seems a lot more than a blip.

    Issue for Labour is they cannot believe they are being ousted anywhere. The wishful thinking that started in Scotland in 2007 in that its their turn soon and it'll just come back.....or this time it might be different and it just won't.

    If UKIP prosper I'm blaming Labour, not the Tories. Opposition doesn't mean the same policies.

    Just look at the Liberals...