There is no doubt that today, British politics is undergoing change on a scale we have not seen in three decades, with the rise of UKIP’s populism and the electoral implosion of the Liberal Democrats. We saw the first in UKIP’s victory at this year’s European elections, and it will probably continue in a crushing victory at the Clacton by-election. The Liberal Democrat’s poll ratings, meanwhile, languish in the single figures. With the policies proposed by UKIP, many seem to view them as purely a concern for the Conservatives as they share superficially similar opinions, though UKIP are often (at least officially) significantly further right. It is a fact that UKIP will take votes away from the Conservatives in many areas in next year’s General Election, and the anticipated impact of this has been widely discussed in the media. Naively however, much of the press has ignored the impact UKIP’s success could have on Labour’s chances for 2015, as they may also lose large numbers of votes to UKIP’s populism.
The image of the Tories is what Labour relies on to keep a large amount of their working class support – the perception of Conservatives as the defenders of the privileged which ensures that many poorer people cannot relate to them, and so vote Labour by default. These people have always voted Labour because of lack of alternative, though many of their views – especially on issues such as immigration and Europe – would fit with the Tory right. For those who are less politically engaged, economic policy is hard to understand, and very few voters truly understand it – certainly this journalist doesn’t claim to. Social policy, on the other hand, often has a base in people’s emotions, their fears and prejudices, and appealing to such emotions is often a vote winner.
UKIP’s vote is essentially split in two. The majority are middle-class, disaffected Tories, unhappy with the socially liberal, relatively pro-Europe leadership of the Conservatives. These people feel the grassroots has been ignored, a fact which is partially down to common sense and partially due to the necessity of coalition rule. The second type of ‘vote UKIP’ target, making up a significant minority of their support, are the voters Farage wants to take from Labour: the disengaged working class, who were ignored by New Labour, but remain vehemently anti-Tory. Concerns about immigration are often key with these voters, and UKIP strikes a chord with their fears.
Much of this group has often demonstrated dissatisfaction by supporting the BNP in the past, as their solidly anti-immigrant (and racist) stance played upon people’s fears. 2009’s European Elections in the North West returned Nick Griffin as an MEP with 8% of the regional vote, won through the manipulation of the prejudices and fears of the working class. Fortunately, Nick Griffin and his vile party have experienced a downturn in fortunes recently, with the rise of UKIP doing them few favours, and Griffin was removed from office in the 2014 European elections.
Despite being an intelligent man, Ed Miliband is no Blair or Thatcher, and he does not have their magic ability to connect with the electorate. This will lose him votes, the votes of those unhappy with the Tories and Lib Dems but unconvinced by his leadership. Labour’s unfortunate lack of ability to provide hope and a positive solution means many of the working class are wary of supporting them. Who will these people vote for? UKIP, of course; they have a charismatic leader and populist rhetoric to which many of them feel they can relate. The viability of UKIP’s policies is not an issue to many of these voters; they see them as an alternative that speaks to them and for them. Whether Farage can deliver what he promises or not is simply irrelevant – many of these people merely want a change from the establishment and see UKIP as being an alternative to which they can relate. This will cost Labour a great deal of support.
Simply put, Labour’s lack of populist policy on immigration and Europe, combined with few concrete proposals to put more money in people’s pockets (though the Energy Prize Freeze was a masterful move), mean they do not appear to be the government-in-waiting that a good opposition should appear to be. Attacking the coalition on the cost of living can only bring so much support: Labour need to connect with voters and offer a credible alternative. It is UKIP who is appealing to large swathes of the working class, with their thinly veiled racism and attacks on immigrants: Appeal to a person’s fears and they will often agree with you. This is what will pose a danger to Labour, on council estates and in poor towns, where they have received votes almost by default. These people now see UKIP as a fresh alternative to the major parties and many will vote UKIP rather than Labour in 2015. UKIP speaks for them, as populism always does: after all, that is its definition. Viable or not, this will hit Labour as well as the Tories, and could cost Ed Miliband the keys to Number 10 in 2015.
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