Richard Heller: Ukip’s rise is a nightmare for Labour too

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RECENT days have produced a series of nightmares for both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Cameron’s are easier to see. First and foremost, he will be dreading a Ukip surge after their likely victory in Clacton. Other MPs may now follow Douglas Carswell’s example – either out of principle or in the hope of saving their necks.

For their part, Ukip have gained a highly intelligent, independent-minded representative. The only downside being that he might make Farage look second-rate. Cameron, meanwhile, looks like a loser to dissident Conservatives. His argument “vote Ukip, get Labour” loses traction. On the contrary, argue Ukip, only a bloc of Ukip MPs can guarantee an EU referendum and keep Labour at bay.

The Prime Minister’s next biggest concern is that the Scots will vote for independence. The Yes camp have moved to striking distance of victory and momentum is now with them after Alex Salmond’s big victory in the second televised debate. Cameron’s position would then become untenable: the UK PM who failed to save the UK.

But Miliband’s nightmares are just as bad. A Scottish “Yes” is as big a disaster for him as for Cameron – indeed, even more so, since Labour was far more involved in the Better Together campaign. The Scots will have looked at the prospect of an Ed Miliband-led Labour government and decided it wasn’t worth having. Will Labour put up with a leader who loses Scotland? A narrow defeat for Scottish independence could be almost as bad for Miliband. Suppose Salmond and the SNP blame their defeat on the Scottish Labour “traitors”, backed by big business and Tory money?

Their fight shifts to Westminster, where they argue that Scots need a big bloc of SNP MPs to force more concessions to Scotland within the UK. How would the decayed Scottish Labour party cope with that? Plaid Cymru use the same appeal with Welsh voters – give us more MPs to win more power for you.

Would Ed Miliband promise more concessions to Scotland and Wales? If so, he delivers a free gift to Ukip, the undeclared but evident English Nationalist Party. Ukip says, whatever the Scots get, we demand for England too.

A Ukip surge, meanwhile, should terrify Labour as much as the Tories.Ignore the recent article that foolishly suggested the Clacton by-election was 
the moment Labour won the next election. Ukip is an existential threat to Labour – even worse than the SDP in the early 1980s.

Contrary to its boast, the SDP never tried to break the mould of British politics, it simply wanted to supplant the Labour party within Britain’s political system. Labour withstood that challenge (just) in 1983 and gradually marched back into the political territory it had abandoned to the SDP. Then, under Tony Blair, it went on marching rightward, way beyond the original SDP.

Ukip’s challenge to Labour is quite different. It paints Labour as part of a corrupt, self-seeking political system which has failed the British people. When Ukip takes voters from Labour on that basis, Labour may never get them back again – even when (inevitably) Ukip disappoints them.

The Rotherham scandal has handed Ukip a terrible stick with which to beat the Labour party. “Labour cannot be trusted to protect children.” Labour councillors were incompetent, negligent and cowardly: children suffered appallingly because they were too terrified to challenge local Pakistani communities. Did Labour assume those communities would support child abusers?

If Ukip need a script for this, they need only read Bill Carmichael’s recent article in this very newspaper. As he pointed out, Rotherham’s story of negligence and evasion has happened in other, mostly Labour-run, cities. Ed Miliband should set up his own inquiry fast (as Rochdale’s campaigning MP Simon Danczuk has already suggested) to discover every Labour elected figure, local or national, who might be accused of a failure to protect vulnerable children.

It won’t help Miliband if Conservative or Liberal Democrat politicians are found equally culpable. It will simply reinforce Ukip’s basic message – the three major parties cannot be trusted. If they cannot look after helpless children, what use are they to anyone else?

All in all, it is hard to see any good news for Cameron or Miliband in the next few months. They probably wish they had stayed on holiday.

Richard Heller is a former chief of staff to Denis Healey.