Labour has a strange response today to Ukip’s success. Ed Miliband has argued that ‘there is deep discontent with the way the country is run and a deep desire to change’, which almost suggests that the results have been resoundingly good for Labour. True, the party has won seats – 152 net gains so far – and reeled in big fishes from the Conservatives such as Hammersmith and Fulham Council. But Ukip is stealing votes from Miliband’s party, Labour is not doing as well as it could be expected to, and the Labour leader’s point seems to be as much about the factors driving voters to Ukip as it is about anything else.
On the BBC earlier, Ed Balls focused on the need for Labour to talk more about immigration and to show that it is ‘credible on these issues [immigration and job security such as zero hours contracts] in the general election fight’. He repeatedly returned to the issue of immigration and European reform, in contrast to Douglas Alexander, who has spent today arguing that Labour shouldn’t out-Ukip Ukip. The funny thing about that Alexander line, of course, is that Labour has already taken steps to toughen up its immigration policy in response to Ukip, so it is hardly trying to forge a distinctive identity on this policy area.
Balls and Alexander have historical tensions between them but as I blogged earlier, other MPs are frustrated at a lack of a Ukip ‘toolkit’ from party central command, even if Labour HQ is now taking on Ukip with more aggression.
Then this afternoon there was an amusing skirmish between John Mann and Michael Dugher about the party’s strategy. Mann was actually reasonably generous towards his party’s leadership in that he did not call for any of them to resign, resignation calls being one of Mann’s hobbies. But he was angry that Labour hadn’t taken on Farage as a Thatcheresque character whose policies would devastate the North.
Some are mocking Mann for simply being angry (Mann is never particularly overjoyed anyway) that no-one took John Mann’s advice. But here’s a word of warning for Labour HQ. You dismiss public moaners like Mann, Stringer and Danczuk at your peril. They might be irritating public whiners in the eyes of those beavering away at Brewer’s Green, but they can say things that other colleagues still think. They are not the only ones dispensing advice. John Healey is a former minister who is so popular in the party that he came second in the 2010 Shadow Cabinet elections. He is not a serial whinger on the backbenches and yet he is warning the party about its strategy.
If these MPs are ignored, Labour could find itself with a situation on its hands that is not dissimilar to the fury in the Conservative party when David Cameron thought it would be ok to ignore his backbenchers and dismiss their advice. Of course it wouldn’t be the mirror image of that: Ed Miliband doesn’t ignore his backbenchers and this helps him a great deal when the chips are down. The anger is as likely to be directed at Shadow Cabinet members such as Alexander. The fault lines in the Conservative party before the rows began were between the MPs and the leader; in the Labour party the fault lines run are a little more complex, but they run between members of the shadow cabinet, rather than a straightforward backbench/leader split. Now that the pressure is on, those fault lines are opening up.
One question for all the political parties as they consider how to respond to Ukip (Balls talked about a ‘wake-up call’, which is a little disconcerting for those who have been worried about the Farage effect for a while as it suggests Labour is only now starting to realise it has some work to do) is how to ape that sincerity and rough-around-the-edges appeal without looking, well, insincere. The three main leaders cannot start making slightly off-colour remarks and swilling pints, as this will only alienate their voters further with its desperation (like Gordon Brown smiling on YouTube). So how do you starting speaking human again without looking as though you’ve had a personality transplant? There’s only a year for the mainstream parties to work out the answer.