After several days of saturation coverage in the mainstream media celebrating the life of Margaret Thatcher, it is hardly surprising that a party of authoritarian populist xenophobes should see an uptick in its share of the vote in local elections. UKIP got a huge amount of positive coverage from these media before the poll and significant encouragement from Conservatives too, like Lord Tebbit.
Their strategy is not to build UKIP as an alternative to the Tories, but to pull the Coalition Government to the right. Cameron’s appointment of Lynton Crosby as a key strategist confirms this trend. Quite possibly, Clegg will drift along with this, because the alternative — ending the Coalition and an early election — would mean electoral oblivion for the LibDems. But that’s no reason for Labour to join the lurch rightwards.
Firstly, Labour did not lose a single seat to UKIP — or the Tories. Secondly, as in the European election five years ago when UKIP ‘broke through’ into second place, turnout was very low, magnifying its importance compared to the main parties. Thirdly, none of the cities voted in this election — the local council seats at stake were entirely in the shire counties. Evidence shows that when UKIP do run in urban areas, they get a derisory vote.
Yet Labour’s right wing, organised around Progress, choose to draw their own conclusions. Labour must get tough on welfare and migrants, they counsel. Lord Mandelson issues regular attacks on Ed Miliband’s leadership. Lord Adonis says Labour must prepare now for a coalition with the LibDems.
These unelected voices clamour for a return to Blairite centrism. But it is working class voters that Labour needs to win back and it will not do so either by rehashing the Brown years or by serving up austerity-lite. Instead, Labour need to mobilise both traditional supporters and the migrant community around an anti-cuts platform of class unity against the politics of racial tension.
As the political agenda drifts rightwards, Labour will come under increasing pressure to come up with answers. On education, the shadow front bench has little to counterpose to the relentless programme of free schools, academies and curriculum reform coming from Michael Gove. On privatisation of public assets, there is a similar policy of drift, when the front bench should in fact be promising to reverse without compensation these politically motivated sell-offs.
Above all, Labour has to set out an alternative economic policy. What is needed now is some vision — a bold programme of affordable house building and sustainable job creation could quickly puncture any working class support for the politics of ethnic division.
Some 1.3 million households in the UK are in unaffordable accommodation. Five million languish on council waiting lists. In London boroughs the waiting list is often over twice as large as the number of units in council stock and a shocking one in four children live in overcrowded conditions. A commitment by Labour to a huge public sector house building programme would be immensely popular with the very supporters we need to win back.
It would also be a step towards job creation. Unemployment is reaching unprecedented levels in modern times, where 6.5 million people are looking for full-time work. The position is especially dire among young people, with one in four jobless in some areas.
Yet there’s little coming from Labour’s front bench to address these crises. Nobody seriously expects Ed Balls’ proposed VAT cut to make much difference to the economy. Worse, leaks from Jon Cruddas’s policy review suggest not only will Chancellor George Osborne’s public spending cuts not be reversed, but that an incoming Labour government will adopt iron fiscal discipline. The consequences of this, according to one Labour insider quoted in the Guardian, could be “brutal”.
Such media leaks are aimed at preparing the ground for more leadership retreat and timidity. Is it any wonder that many people don’t know who to vote for?
Millions of people want an alternative to government austerity. Thousands are likely to support initiatives around the People’s Assembly on June 22nd. We must show by our actions that an alternative to the misery of economic collapse is now more urgent than ever. Pressure must be redoubled at all levels of our movement for Labour to offer this alternative. Failure to do so could lead to far worse than a few UKIP councillors.