“LABOUR is finished!” That was the first response I heard from one of its activists in Yorkshire as the implications of the party’s near defeat in the Heywood and Middleton by-election, a safe North West constituency, sunk in. Suddenly Nigel Farage’s threat about his “people’s army” unleashing its revenge against a Westminster elite does not seem like a vainglorious boast after all.
The truth is that the stirrings of discontent in Yorkshire and much of the North have been festering for some time. 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”?
This region has an unusually high concentration of MPs who occupy top seats at Westminster. Nick Clegg and William Hague are at the heart of government. Ed Miliband leads the Opposition while Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Hilary Benn, Mary Creagh and Caroline Flint hold key Shadow Cabinet posts.
As part of the electoral contract, voters had a clear expectation that their MPs would be strong advocates for the region. Instead Sheffield residents were disappointed that one of Nick Clegg’s earliest acts in government was to approve a deplorable financial settlement for this county.
Labour voters are equally disappointed that Ed Miliband, also MP for Doncaster, has failed to adequately challenge a raft of patently unfair policies.
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 beneficiary of £85bn in corporate welfare handouts has been the private sector. While property prices have rocketed in London, affluent neighbourhoods have been socially cleansed and families dispersed out of the capital by the bedroom tax. Legal aid restrictions have undermined employee rights and the scrapping of the £347m crisis fund has driven the destitute 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, Ukip’s vision for government is potentially catastrophic for the North.
The small bed and breakfast establishments in places like Scarborough, Bridlington and Whitby and the asparagus and strawberry farms in North Yorkshire – whose owners might be seduced by Ukip rhetoric of the loss of British identity – would not survive without the seasonal labour provided by Eastern Europeans.
Similarly the ageing residents in affluent Harrogate and Ilkley 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 Hull, York, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, the monies injected into the local economy by international students have generated local jobs and produced research excellence.
There is a positive narrative on migration but sadly Ed Miliband’s response to the Heywood and Middleton by-election has been to legitimise Farage’s anti-immigration stance. His offer of stricter border controls and the tightening of benefit entitlements 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 withdrawing 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 Yorkshire.
Given Britain’s 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 Yorkshire and Humber? 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.
The absence of figures like John Prescott, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson – seen as having affinity with the experiences of the ordinary person – has been to the party’s detriment. Likewise the failure of Labour to speak the language of the common folk – terminology such as the “squeezed middle”, the “predatory asset stripper class”, the “cost of living crisis”– has left voters cold.
If there is a silver lining to the Ukip cloud, it is this: it is dawning on politicians that they have to re-engage with their voter base and beyond. Maybe 2015 will mark the year when politics gets back to basics.
Ratna Lachman is director of JUST West Yorkshire, which promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights.