The election of Paul Nuttall as leader of UKIP with the promise to lead his party to a vote share of between 26% and 30% and more than 10 parliamentary seats at the 2020 general election, has provoked dubious reaction from outspoken right-wing Labour MPs.
Right-wing Labour MP Stephen Kinnock used a column in the Financial Times to call for Labour to back an implicitly more racist approach to immigration. He said that although immigration may not affect working-class living standards, it is perceived to be negative to many working-class voters. Labour needs to put forward a clear plan for controlling immigration. Frank Field, a more maverick Labour right-winger, thought Labour needed to be worried by Paul Nuttall as a potentially authentic voice of the working class. Nigel Farage was a straight talker but a stockbroker-cum-country gentleman. Nuttall, on the other hand, is a northern plebeian-seeming voice of racism.
Field appears to agree with UKIP on lots of things, arguing that Labour can only accommodate to it or risk electoral defeat. UKIP polled 3.8 million votes at the 2015 election, topped the polls in almost every region for the European elections, and played a major role in getting an EU referendum called. Its politics were decisive in winning it for a leave vote. But can it be the success Nuttall wants it to be?
Nuttall’s policies are actually a combination of right wing populist social policies — including a return of the death penalty and banning the burka — and a swift and clean “hard Brexit”. He also believes climate change to be a myth. This week when EU immigration was shown to be at a record high Paul Nuttall said, “after six and a half years of Tory rule, we still have net migration running at more than 300,000. Another city the size of Hull added to our population. More pressure on housing, schools and the NHS.”
Apart from the factual inaccuracy — Hull’s population is only 250,000 — this is an appeal to the core Labour vote. The appeal to working-class voters seems rely solely on his Bootle accent. His actual politics — in favour of further privatisation and fragmentation of the NHS — has been rightly been attacked by Labour in a campaign video. Where UKIP’s continuing threat is in its the dangerous hateful rhetoric which they continue to propagate in the wake of Brexit.
Strong showings for UKIP in recent council elections and in a series of by-elections last year show that their threat should not be downplayed but neither should it be played to. UKIP have an all or nothing approach to Brexit and the best approach for Labour is to continue to oppose Brexit and hold the government to account on its terms for leaving.
UKIP hope to do well in some of the areas most hard hit by reductions in both freedom of movement and a removal of access to the single market. Manufacturing jobs, which make up a much higher proportion of employment in the north of England, are under threat.
Nuttall received an overwhelming vote from the majority of UKIP members who voted, but only 53% of them chose to do so. The party remains divided and some of its big donors had previously suggested they would break from UKIP and either support the Conservative Party or campaign solely on the issue of Brexit.
UKIP remains a threat. The Labour Party and labour movement should prepare to confront UKIP, not accommodate to it. We need to pose class politics and fight for a better standard of living for working-class people. Labour cannot trick UKIP’s potential working-class supporters into voting for a lighter version with the rhetoric of Field and Kinnock. Clear campaigns that seek to undermine the material basis for racism and xenophobia, taking up demands that benefit the whole working class and building solidarity between settled and migrant communities, will undermine the racist rhetoric and offer real solutions to those who have been left behind by the Tories.