Labour needs a positive message on immigration

Before the dust had settled from the local elections and before the results of the European elections had even been announced, the media were portraying UKIP as the resounding victors, with the BBC loudly endorsing Nigel Farage’s claim to have created an earthquake in British politics. In the run-up to the elections, some politicians and academics warned that Labour faced a serious challenge from the insurgent right-wing party. In the aftermath, senior Labour Party figures said that Labour had to reach out and win back voters who had turned to UKIP. The hand-wringing and chest-beating reached a climax last Monday, with Sadiq Khan publishing an open letter in The Express apologising to UKIP voters for Labour’s ‘mistakes’ on immigration.

The implicit argument made by Khan and those who agree with him is that Labour voters are switching from the Labour Party to vote UKIP. To stop this from happening Labour needs to show that it takes the concerns of these voters seriously by getting tougher on immigration. The overall effect of this line of reasoning is to make concessions to UKIP in the hope that by doing so Labour will win back lost votes.

Who is voting for UKIP?

Khan’s strategy only makes sense if it can be shown that Labour voters are turning to UKIP in significant numbers. The evidence just doesn’t support this view. In fact, Lord Ashcroft’s poll, commissioned straight after the election on 22nd May, proves the opposite. Ashcroft found that over 50% of UKIP’s support came from disillusioned Conservative voters. Ex-Labour voters consisted of only 15% of UKIP’s support.

The results of the European elections support these figures. In all UK European Parliamentary constituencies, Labour has either held its seats, or gained more. UKIP’s new seats in the European Parliament have come at the expense of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The people voting for UKIP are not disillusioned Labour voters who think Labour ‘got it wrong’ on immigration. They are overwhelmingly ex-Tories, not to mention ex-BNP and English Democrats

Although there are clearly some exceptions to the rule (for example, Stocksbridge and East and West Ecclesfield in my home town, Sheffield), the same goes for the local elections. Whilst much has been made of the results in Rotherham, the decline in the Labour vote hardly accounts for the surge in UKIP support. As Left Futures points out it is notable that the Rotherham seats won by UKIP were those in which there were no ‘credible, established oppositions’.  Bob Pitt has similarly argued that the movement of Tory voters to UKIP has meant that in some key marginals in the general election, Labour is now more, not less, likely to win.

The most significant evidence supporting the claim that UKIP are eating into Labour’s base comes from Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, Nottingham and Manchester based academics. In their analysis of UKIP voters, Revolt on the Right, they give evidence to suggest that UKIP’s support comes from older (55+), white, male, blue-collar workers. Goodwin and Ford argue that this working class demographic, who they call ‘the left behind’, is more traditionally associated with the Labour Party electoral base, so Labour should be worried.

However, Britain has a long tradition of working-class Conservatism. It’s therefore not enough to say that UKIP attracts working class support. It’s also necessary to demonstrate that UKIP is supported by loyal Labour voters who have recently switched to UKIP, rather than disgruntled working class Tories dissatisfied with Cameron’s Conservatives.

Goodwin and Ford recognise this factor in their research. After declaring that UKIP’s ‘recent recruits have mostly been former Conservative voters’ (Revolt on the Right, p. 170-1), they investigate long term voting patterns to establish whether or not UKIP voters are lifelong working class Tories, or if they were once Labour supporters who switched to the Conservatives then switched again to UKIP. The results of this investigation are inconclusive:

[W]ithout more information about the past voting habits and current ideological leanings of UKIP voters, it is hard to say for certain which group [‘Old’ Labour voters or working class Tories] predominates (Revolt on the Right, p.175).

Goodwin and Ford’s claim that there is a UKIP incursion onto Labour’s traditional support has been much trumpeted in the media. However – by their own admission – it’s not clear from their evidence that this is true. What is clear is that UKIP are currently taking their votes from the Conservatives not Labour. The results of the European elections supports this view.

The consequences of conceding to racism

If Khan – and those who agree with him – are actually pursuing ex-Tory voters with their move to the right on immigration, the results would be disastrous. It is unlikely that these voters will suddenly switch to Labour. Why, if you have never done so before, would you vote for a Party you think has been “soft” on immigration, when you could vote for a real anti-immigration party like UKIP or the Tories?

The real danger is that “getting tough” on immigration will put off voters that would naturally support Labour at the next election: ex-Lib Dem voters, for example, or voters who turned to the Lib Dems from Labour because they believed the former to be a “left” or “liberal” alternative. It may also encourage yet more of Labour’s core vote to sit on their hands at the next election, causing them to join the 6 million voters who left the Party under Blair and Brown.

Most importantly, in addition to being electorally disastrous for Labour, conceding to UKIP’s racist anti-immigrant agenda will only shift the political landscape further to the Right and entrench racist views on immigration. It would hand initiative to the right in a race to the bottom, with UKIP continuously making new reactionary demands.

UKIP is racist

In what is effectively a rhetorical move to prettify an accomodation to racism, Labour politicians have argued that they are listening to the legitimate concerns of the ‘left behind’ voters Goodwin and Ford identify. Indeed, Goodwin himself has argued that UKIP isn’t a racist party because the majority of its voters subscribe to a civic, rather than racial, view of national identity. According to this view, UKIP isn’t racist because its members think that British identity is defined by your values, not the colour of your skin.

But to anyone who has followed the evolution of racism in Britain, it is precisely on the field of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ that modern racism is played out. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Muslim community is singled-out for special treatment by politicians and the media because – it’s claimed – they do not accept “western values” and will not integrate into British society. In the mainstream media, Muslims are not persecuted because of their skin colour but in the civic “our values, not theirs” sense that Goodwin describes.This makes it no less racist.

It’s no accident that in a study by Goodwin and Ford, UKIP voters, alongside BNP voters, overwhelmingly identify Islam as a threat to western civilisation (64%) and that UKIP has grown as its representatives have made overtly Islamophobic comments. UKIP has postured over not letting ex-members of the BNP into the Party, but in interviews with Goodwin, Nigel Farage has made no secret of the party’s attempt to court the BNP vote.

Farage’s recent comments in an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien should dispel any illusions about UKIP’s racist attitude to Eastern European immigrants (the interview should be required watching for journalists on how to deal with UKIP). When asked what the differences are between someone like Farage’s German wife moving in next door, and a family of Romanians, Farage refused to answer the question, ominously stating ‘you know the difference’. UKIP are explicit in saying that the problem isn’t immigration per se, but ‘the quality’ of who is immigrating. Presumably this means Romanians are “low quality” whereas Germans are “high quality”. We can label this distinction a kind of ‘civic’ nationalism, or we can call it for what it is: a racist typology of “good” and “bad” immigrants.

Clearly, UKIP is not a fascist party and it cannot be tackled in the same way as the BNP . However, any discussion over the different tactics that are needed to defeat UKIP must start from the strategic assumption that UKIP is a racist party and that concessions to its agenda are concessions to racism.

Labour needs a positive message

For Labour to pander to UKIP’s racism would be electorally disastrous for them and it would plunge the debate on immigration – which is already plumbing the depths of reaction – further into the mire.

The right-wing vote is saturated by UKIP and the Tories. Rather than attempt to court it, Labour needs to give voters who are not attracted to these parties something to vote for; rather than concede to racism, it should champion the reality of modern multicultural Britain; and rather than attacking immigrants, it should stand up for immigration and the benefits it brings.

This positive message would appeal to a layer of the electorate that has also been ‘left behind’ by the race to the bottom in the immigration debate; to Liberal Democrat voters who are appalled by the party’s coalition with the Tories; to Green voters who left Labour, fed up with its march to the right; and to ex-Labour voters who sit on their hands because they are sick of voting ‘with a clothes peg on their nose’.

The Labour Party will never be tougher on immigration than the racist rump of the Conservative Party. For its own electoral fortunes, the voters it has left behind, and the quality of the debate on immigration, it should stop trying.