The success of UKIP in last week’s European and local elections has prompted much soul-searching within the Labour party.
First of all, we have come to realise that we cannot dismiss concerns regarding immigration felt by the worst off in society. As the Searchlight Educational Trust revealed in their groundbreaking report ‘Fear and Hope’, there is a “clear correlation between economic pessimism and negative attitudes towards immigration.” This in turn leads to a fear of the ‘Other’, leading to the Islamophobia and racism that now run rampant on the continent in the guise of populist and far right parties like the Front National in France. Now this fear has reached our shores under UKIP’s purple and yellow banner.
This fear usually entrenches itself most deeply among the poorest in society, and for good reason.
Throughout history, whenever there has been a period of economic decline, the most alienated have looked to the political right for someone to blame. That they do so is not based on empirical and rational argument; nor is it the product of innate prejudices. Rather it is the product of a pre-set strategy among those in the upper echelons of politics: turning neighbour against neighbour, ‘them’ against ‘us’. We have seen it with the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric popular with the Tory frontbench, and we see it now with immigration from the European Union.
UKIP is adept at playing the blame game, but this type of politics offers no solution to the social and economic hardships faced by the very voters Farage and co are courting. Protest votes from the working class, if they were truly cast in their own socio-economic interest, would extend out to a populist left- a niche currently occupied by the Green party. But the lack of media attention that the Greens command means that their presence simply isn’t felt as it should be.
This offers Labour a chance to step in and fill the void. It will not be an easy path to follow. If Ed Miliband is to capture the hearts and souls of the marginalized currently flocking to UKIP, he must first point out that Farage is not the beer swilling, anti-establishment caricature as drawn by the press, but a small state, tax cutting, pro-privatization former banker as out of touch- or even more so- than David Cameron and the Tories.
Then, Miliband must offer a genuine social democratic alternative to UKIP’s agenda. Labour must become the protectors of the welfare state and the champions of full employment, of housing, and of a living wage- all policies that the worst off should be keen to embrace.
Turning rightwards is not an option. Miliband must resist demands to drop his centrepiece Cost of Living campaign. Working class people do not feel the supposed recovery that George Osborne boasts about, so a laser-focus on the disconnection between prices and wages should resonate with Labour’s target voters.
Miliband’s best bet of becoming Prime Minister is to cheerlead for a social democratic alternative to the current government’s policy programme and to point out the characters truly at fault for the present economic turmoil. Not the immigrants, but the very elites that UKIP’s economic policies support.