“Labour is f…d!” That was the first response I heard from a Labour activist in Yorkshire, as the implications of Labour’s near defeat in Heywood and Middleton, a safe North West constituency sunk in. Suddenly Farage’s threat that his ‘people’s army’ is set to unleash its ‘revenge’ against a Westminster elite that has abandoned them, does not seem like a vainglorious boast after all.
The truth is that the stirrings of discontent in the North were already festering, if the three Party leaders had only cared to look. As Northerners witnessed the recession and austerity budget sucking the economic life-blood out of their region, the common refrain was – ‘Where are our MPs in our time of need’?
Among Northern constituencies, the Yorkshire and Humber region has an unusually high concentration of MPs who occupy top seats in the Coalition government and the shadow Cabinet. Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield and William Hague, the MP for Richmond are at the heart of government. Ed Milliband, MP for Doncaster, Ed Balls, MP for Morley and Outwood, Yvette Cooper, MP for Wakefield and Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds East hold shadow Cabinet posts.
As part of the electoral contract voters had a clear expectation that their MPs would be strong advocates for the North of England. Instead Sheffield voters have been disappointed that one of the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg’s earliest act in government was to approve a deplorable financial settlement in which the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber were given a third less in government grants compared to the more affluent Tory shires in the South. Likewise while investment monies have been poured to improve the economic, transport and infrastructure of the South, the North has been offered financial crumbs?
Labour voters are equally disappointed that Ed Milliband has failed to adequately challenge a raft of patently unfair policies such as the government’s £375 billion quantitative easing programme which has swelled the bank coffers in the London square mile, but failed to target jobs or apprenticeship schemes in areas of high unemployment in the North.
The evidence that the political elite are far removed from the grinding concerns of the person-in-the-street is manifold: while public services that the poor, disabled and sick rely on have been dismembered, the beneficiaries of the £85 billion corporate welfare handouts has been the private sector. While property prices have rocketed in London, affluent neighbourhoods have been socially cleansed and families have been dispersed out of the capital due to the bedroom tax. Legal aid restrictions have undermined employee rights and the scrapping of the £347 million crisis fund has driven the destitute and starving into the hands of loan sharks.
Little wonder then that Nigel Farage has been able to exploit the crisis of despair, by presenting himself as the folk hero come to rescue the country from the demon immigrants and faceless Brussels bureaucrats. While this might prove to be an effective strategy that enables Farage to scoop up disenchanted voters, for Northerners, UKIP’s vision for government can be potentially catastrophic.
The small bread and breakfast establishments in the fading coastal towns of the North of England in places like Scarborough, Bridlington and Whitby and the asparagus and strawberry farmers in North Yorkshire’s rural farms – who might be seduced by the UKIP rhetoric of the loss of British identity – would not survive without the seasonal labour provided by Eastern Europeans. Similarly the ageing residents of the affluent Lake District and rural North Yorkshire would not be able to enjoy their quality of life were it not for the immigrant care workers; the African NHS doctors; or the Filipino nurses. Through Durham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, York, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, the monies injected into the local economy by international students has generated local jobs and produced research excellence.
There is a positive narrative on migration but sadly Ed Milliband’s response to UKIP’s near victory in Heywood and Middleton has been to legitimise Farage’s anti-immigration stance. His offer of stricter border controls and the tightening of benefit entitlements to stop wages being undercut is a finger-buffet offering when UKIP is offering voters a veritable cornucopia of a European referendum in July 2015; keeping HIV+ migrants out of Britain; and withdrawal from UK’s international aid and environmental obligations.
UKIP’s two-dimensional caricature of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the world may resonate with disillusioned voters and sections of the tabloid press but it will only worsen the economic prospects for the North of England. The latest report from the Centre for Cities has highlighted that Northern cities are most at risk from long-term structural poverty. Over a third of all employment in Sunderland and Hull is now low-paid and in Grimsby and Doncaster the figure is one in four. On the other hand the prospect for London and the South East is on the up: the Report estimates that more than 60% of workers there will be in high-paid occupations by 2022.
UKIP’s prescription of EU withdrawal can only worsen the current economic status quo. A study undertaken by The Centre for Economics and Business Research highlights that unlike the South East, jobs in Midlands and Yorkshire are dependent on exports to Europe. Almost 14% of employment in Yorkshire and the North West are linked to the EU, which generates 4 million jobs and £211 billion in exports totally.
So given Britain’s economic dependence on foreign markets and migrant labour, can Labour turn the toxic UKIP (and Conservative) narrative on immigration and the EU into a positive vision for the North? With great difficulty! The loss of foot soldiers who can knock on doors and convince supporters and detractors of the continued saliency of Labour’s vision has been a major challenge since the unions have been shunted to the margins of the Party. Labour also has an image problem in the North and the absence of people like John Prescott, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson – who are seen as having affinity with the lived experiences of the person-in-the-street – in the shadow Cabinet, has been to the Party’s detriment. Likewise the failure of Labour to speak in the language of the common folk – its use of terminology such as the ‘squeezed middle’, the ‘predatory asset stripper class’, the ‘cost of living crisis’- has left voters feeling decidedly cold.
In seven months time it is likely that both the Conservative and Labour parties will be fighting for their survival against a resurgent UKIP. It is difficult to predict the shape of Britain’s future political landscape. It is unlikely that UKIP will make the clean sweep in the North that UKIP is predicting, but it will certainly give the Labour party a political bruising.
However if there is a silver lining to the UKIP cloud it is this: it is dawning on politicians across the political divide that they can no longer be cocooned in the Westminster bubble but have to re-engage with their voter base and beyond.
There are signs that we may be witnessing a change in our political culture where politicians are beginning to realise that narrow sectional party interests; the tendency to see voters in utilitarian electoral terms; and the short-termism that packages political priorities into a five-year time-frame does not serve the long-term interest of Britain and its people. Maybe 2015 will mark the year when politics gets back to basics.