For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.
As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.
Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.
But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.
The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.
In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is 92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.
However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.
Labour has correctly clocked that UKIP has changed tack from “Europe” to “Europe and immigration”. But that message has resonated in the North for reasons that it has still not fully understood, to which we now turn.
Heywood and Middleton, it was little remarked over recent weeks, forms part of the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale.
Now, if we are to get to fully understand the Heywood result, we need to think about how Rochdale has appeared in the national news over the last two years.
Last week, further evidence emerged regarding the abuse carried out by former MP Cyril Smith, and others, at Knowl View special school between forty and twenty years ago. Smith had abused in various locations “all in the Greater Manchester area”. As John Mann, tweeted last Thursday: “it is becoming clear that the child sex abuse cover up is much, much bigger than anyone could ever realise”.
Rochdale, it is clear, has had a poor history with regard to protecting children. As it seems many councils have had in that area, Rotherham being another recent example. However, there are two aspects to this effect, both of which affect Labour.
The first is that when “the authorities” let you down as a citizen, your natural reaction is to want to punish them at the ballot box. The Establishment in these Northern towns is almost exclusively Labour, so it is natural that they might bear the brunt of such feeling. However, there are mitigating factors: Smith was a Liberal and the abuse happened a long time ago. In the case of Rochdale, its current Labour MP Simon Danczuk has commendably left no stone unturned in surfacing abuse cases, no matter how awkward this might prove for today’s politicians. These things help.
But the second is a much more pernicious effect, and one open to manipulation by Labour’s opponents. It is undeniable that the most important contemporary manifestation of child abuse across those same Northern towns is from gangs of almost exclusively Pakistani-heritage men. In 2011, Rochdale was pretty much the first town to see this issue brought to public attention.
This year, Rotherham showed there was a pattern. Even before the child abuse investigation was published, Lewis Baston noted in Progress magazine that the only council by-election UKIP had so far won in the metropolitan boroughs since May 2013 was Rawmarsh ward in Rotherham, in June 2013. A coincidence? It seems unlikely.
Today, one suspects, we might not have won the Rotherham parliamentary by-election so convincingly, and there is certainly good anecdotal evidence suggesting that UKIP might be deliberately targeting seats where such gangs are an issue.
Most importantly, it is inconceivable that this subject will not still loom large in the minds of Rochdale’s parents and yet, apart from the tireless Danczuk and a couple of others, it is still practically a taboo subject for Labour, as we saw during the Heywood campaign. Jack Straw was practically crucified when he first raised it three years ago.
It was not taboo, of course, for UKIP, as their election leaflets show.
In fact, we left them an open goal. It could paint Labour not only as the party of incompetence, or even cover-up, with regard to child abuse. It could paint them as the out-of-touch local hegemonists; the blindly politically-correct governing party, so tight with the local Pakistani clans that it would never do anything to upset the applecart.
In short, Labour failed even to mention the one subject uppermost in many voters’ minds. As an anonymous Labour MP delicately put it to the Telegraph:
“Ukip has been making inroads because our party is unwilling to address difficult issues. In Heywood & Middleton we have been unwilling to talk about the child abuse scandal, which has given Nigel Farage’s party a clear opportunity. The party needs to give candidates freedom to discuss local issues, no matter how difficult. We have to let go of the reins.”
It is not difficult to extrapolate across the North – even to the Midlands, where the Trojan Horse scandal is creating a comparable opportunity for UKIP to paint Labour as deaf and blind – and see that we need to look to our laurels with regard to the core vote in many of these industrial towns. Add in reasonable concerns about strain on public services caused by immigration, and you have the recipe for a backlash against Labour.
This does not, of course, mean that Labour needs to get into debates about limiting numbers of migrants which our economy needs, or hinting that we “understand” UKIP’s lowest-common-denominator responses. That way lies madness.
But neither must it ignore realities. It is easy to see how speeches like Miliband’s to the PLP do not remotely address the concerns of Rochdale voters:
“Mr Miliband did not set out any new immigration policies, but spoke about the “need to take action against the undercutting of wages, the need to take action to make sure people integrate more, the need to make sure people learn English, the need to make sure there are not unfair recruitment practices.”
This just will not cut it when people perceive – quite wrongly in most cases, but in good faith – that the very lives of their children might be put at risk by a Labour council, or a Labour government, sitting on its hands out of political correctness.
No, Labour needs to lose its dangerous paralysis when discussing touchy subjects, especially those which affect different ethnic communities asymmetrically. It seems that identity politics, that corrosive force which drives us to categorise people according to the characteristics which divide, rather than unite us, always gets in the way.
Yes, there are a number of reasons why we might have alienated our core vote. But this is surely one of the most powerful in those northern towns. And, in conclusion, there is something which one finds it strange even to have to say about the Labour Party, the party of equality.
It needs, simply, to demonstrate convincingly to voters that it treats all people equally, regardless of their religion or the colour of their skin. No better and no worse. No special treatment for anyone. The same.
At the moment, it seems clear that a number of our prospective voters don’t feel that’s the case.
This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for What We're Reading by Progress Online