The only way to challenge the rise of Ukip, the party that has made racism more respectable, is to offer a real alternative to austerity, argues Lindsey German
In an operation worthy of Goebbels himself, there seems to be a consensus of politicians, media and commentators that the big loser in Thursday’s local elections was the party which actually won. It seems hard to believe that the newspaper headlines and broadcast scripts weren’t written before the election results, so at variance are they from the actual, if complex, facts.
Let’s consider a few of these. According to Saturday’s Guardian, ‘Ukip, long regarded as on the march, actually saw its projected share of the vote fall by six points compared with last year, from 23% to 17%, according to BBC calculations. Experts identified Ukip polling 20% in most of the country but just 7% in London’. Despite this, the article is headlined ‘Miliband told: raise your game’.
You have to trawl deep within the paper to find some more facts. One is that if the vote is projected into a general election result in 2015, Labour ‘will come close to a majority’ with 322 seats, just four short of an overall majority. Another is the comment from John Curtice, a well respected expert on voting figures, that the surprise was Ukip’s less than inspiring performance. ‘They did pretty well but we shouldn’t exaggerate it.’
The effective landslide to Labour in London, where it bagged several previously Tory held councils, especially the flagship Hammersmith and Fulham, is practically ignored, despite it being a city of approaching 8 million people. The meltdown of the Libdems in London, which if repeated would see the loss of some of their highest profile MPs, has barely been commented on. Ukip’s failure there is put down to the youth and diversity of the city, although it is clear from Labour’s vote and that of the Greens in some areas, plus the win for Mayor Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, that there is a different and much more progressive agenda in many parts of London.
That is also true of other cities, where Ukip failed to break through, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Norwich.
There is much to worry about with the results, and it is true that Ukip has taken votes from all three main parties. In a number of seats, for example in parts of Manchester and the north east, they have come second. But this is partly that Ukip is taking very large numbers of votes from Tories and other right wing parties in strong Labour areas (see for example some of the north Manchester results). Some of these voters will have previously voted Labour, but a lot will be those who never have given Labour its support.
There is another point about some of the old Labour strongholds, where party organisation and support has been eroded over the years. Here, there is often not a full range of candidates represented locally, so the Ukip challenge has few rivals. Take the much vaunted Rotherham results, declared early and used as a stick to beat Ed Miliband. They are very bad results for Labour, where Ukip took 9 seats, 7 from Labour and another 2 from the Tories. But in a number of the wards there, only three candidates stood. So in Dinnington which Ukip won, only Labour and Independent stood as well; in Rother Vale, Ukip was up against Labour and TUSC, and won, and in Hellaby it was a three way fight between Tories, Labour and Ukip.
This demonstrates the breakdown of politics in strong Labour areas (something I witnessed when standing for Respect in Newham in 2005). It is Labour’s real problem, and stems partly from the party’s pro-austerity policies and lack of delivery, partly from much longer term erosion of the labour movement, especially in the former industrial heartlands of mining and steel (of which Rotherham is a prime example).
Ed Miliband has no answers to the problems of party, and of social and community decline, in these regions (he, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper all, unsurprisingly, represent similarly de-industrialised areas in other parts of Yorkshire). Nor does he seem to have the guts to stand up to the unholy alliance of Tories, Blairites and the media who have put this spin onto the results, partly to deflect from their own failing and partly to pile on pressure for another coalition government if, as looks likely, Labour emerges next year as the largest single party. It is inevitable now that he will concede to the right-wing arguments, with more emphasis on immigration and scapegoating.
The left is right to fear the rise of Ukip, which has pulled mainstream British politics further to the right and made racism more respectable. We will see on Sunday how the parties do in the Euro elections, which will be the strongest ground for Ukip and other right-wing parties across the continent. There is a major job to do to combat these policies. The socialist electoral challenge did poorly, unable to attract a sizeable number of discontented working-class people. The Greens obviously did much better, coming second in a number of areas, for example Hackney, Islington and Manchester. This further illustrates that the disgruntled and disenchanted Labour vote does not need to go to the right, but can be for public ownership, anti-austerity and with an anti-racist and anti-war agenda.
Combating the right means offering a real alternative to austerity, not empty rhetoric which doesn’t relate to most people. A good start and an antidote to racism would be to build the People’s Assembly march against austerity on 21 June. A month after the elections, it is an opportunity to show that there is an alternative. There is the possibility of big extra parliamentary struggle on 10 July, when a number of trade unions are planning strike action, and on 18 October the TUC is organising a demonstration. Socialists should throw themselves into building these activities as well as campaigning against the racism and scapegoating which have now become everyday fare for the mainstream politicians.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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