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A Question of Place, a Matter of Identity?

Already Labour’s future depends less on who wins the contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, than who is elected UKIP’s leader. That is just one sign of UKIP’s potential challenge to the party’s future.

Labour’s greatest danger is if UKIP’s new leader rebrands the party as the English party.

I’ve never accepted that UKIP were the most serious long term challenger to Tory disgruntled votes. History has it that Tory voters are good at voting for Lib Dems in protest by-election votes, but are much more inclined to return to the fold at a subsequent, often second, general election.

UKIP’s Labour vote appears much more stable and loyal to its new party. The reason for this is simple. Much of the Tory protest vote in UKIP was against a general direction of government policy.

Labours’ protest vote is specific- against a party that is dominated by the so-called North London intellectual elite, although not much intellectual about it I’m afraid- that had an internationalist view for Labour as opposed to one that treasured country, place, culture and borders.

Nearly a million voters who previously voted Labour moved to UKIP at the last election. This did not result in UKIP winning seats but it did lead to 9 Tory gains.

The referendum, however, is the big game changer. A total of 150 Labour MPs (overwhelmingly pro – EU) have an electorate that voted leave. This disconnection between the aspiration of voters and the beliefs of their MPs could not be more stark.

Worse still, too many voters see their MPs as an embodiment of a remote elite who have done well out of the system. How many pro-EU MPs representing leave constituencies will be able to answer UKIP’s very simple charge that Labour no longer represents the economic, or much more importantly now, cultural interest of their voters?

The greatest of all dangers is that UKIP refashions itself as the English party.  Again, look at the referendum vote. 72% of those who think of themselves as English voted leave, compared with only 43% of voters whose primary sense of identity was British.

Labour voters are interested in a sense of identity, how it links to country, and their country to the security of its borders.  Labour has nothing relevant to say on this front. Worse, Labour is seen to be opposed to the politics of place and identity. It is on this score that Labour’s biggest challenge comes.

It is either Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith up to pinching UKIP’s new clothes? Don’t hold your breath.


Lord Field of Birkenhead

Frank Field took his seat in the House of Lords in September 2020. Previously, he was Member of Parliament for Birkenhead between 1979 and 2019, sitting as a Labour MP until 2018, and thereafter as an Independent. He chaired the Work and Pensions Select Committee, a position he held until 2019, having chaired the committee in its previous incarnation as the Social Security Select Committee between 1990 and 1997. His Politeia publications include Revisiting Beveridge: A Benefits and Welfare System for the 21st Century (with Andrew Forsey, 2020) and Working Welfare: Contributory Benefits, the Moral Economy and the New Politics (2013).

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