There’s a constant, steady stream of Labour politicians who tell us the party is losing supporters to Ukip.
It’s become fashionable again to talk about how Labour is losing votes among the “white working class” in its heartlands.
The reason, allegedly, is immigration.
The right argue that Labour has become dominated by a London-based, liberal elite.
They say that becoming a working class party again means shifting to the right.
Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones is one of the most recent ones.
He said last Thursday that defending free movement of people is a “London-centric position”.
“People see it very differently in Labour-supporting areas of the north of England,” he said.
“We have to be very careful that we don’t drive our supporters into the arms of Ukip.”
It came after new Ukip leader Paul Nuttall declared his party would replace Labour by appealing to working class voters.
In Scotland, where Ukip is nowhere and Labour has been in terminal decline, this debate does not play out. The Scottish National Party continues to cement its dominance of the political landscape.
In three recent by-elections seats traditionally seen as Labour strongholds—Oldham, Ogmore, and Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough—Ukip came second to Labour.
But this isn’t evidence that Ukip is growing at Labour’s expense.
Labour’s share of the vote went up by 7.3 percent in Oldham, and it rose by 5.9 percent in Sheffield, where Ukip’s share fell.
Where Ukip increased its share—by 2.8 percent in Oldham and 1.2 percent in Ogmore—it was the Tories who lost out.
They dropped by 9.6 percent and 3.3 percent in those seats.
Ukip gained two council seats from Labour there in Bolton last May—but both came because of a swing from the Tories
It’s the same at a local council level.
A council by-election in Hartlepool in the North East made national news in October when Ukip won the seat from Labour.
Ukip’s candidate came from nowhere to take nearly 50 percent of the vote, while both Labour and the Tories’ shares dropped dramatically.
The win was reported in the media as a warning to Labour.
Yet in recent council elections and by-elections where Ukip’s vote share has risen, more often than not it’s because they’ve taken Tory voters.
Bolton is a good example. Ukip gained two seats from Labour there at the council elections last May—but both came because of a swing from the Tories.
In many other places where Ukip’s vote share rises, so does Labour’s.
But there are also places where Labour’s share goes up while Ukip’s falls.
And where Labour’s vote share falls, it tends to have lost out to other forces such as independents, Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru in Wales.
Often in those places Ukip’s share also falls—only more sharply.
So it’s a complex picture. Labour is losing some votes to Ukip, but not in massive numbers.
A study by Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon from Oxford University sheds some light on what’s really going on.
Although it was carried out just before the 2015 general election, what it tells us helps to explain election results in 2016.
The study looked at data from the British Election Study between 2005 and autumn 2014.
Ukip’s voters were “overwhelmingly taken from those who voted Conservative in 2010.
“Even the Lib Dems lose more to Ukip than do Labour.”
What’s more, they also found that Ukip’s strongest support comes from the middle class—self-employed people, business owners and managers.
These are not the traditional, core Labour supporters that the right insist are abandoning the party for Ukip.
In fact, even among Ukip supporters that the study classified as workers, the strongest grouping was supervisors.
It wasn’t “the disadvantaged semi and unskilled workers that have been thought to provide the core of Ukip support”.
So the reason that Ukip has been able to do well in some Labour areas is not because they’ve massively sapped away Labour’s vote.
It’s that “there are still a lot of Conservative voters in Labour seats” and it’s mostly this group that has helped Ukip to grow.
The picture is complicated by the fact that a number of Ukip supporters in the study—although not the majority—did vote for Labour in 2005.
What’s interesting about these people is that most of them had stopped supporting Labour by 2010, but didn’t start supporting Ukip until 2014.
They’re some of the five million voters who abandoned Labour while it was led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Those five million weren’t drawn away by Ukip. But Ukip has since managed to pick up a minority of them by posing as an alternative to the mainstream political parties.
Confronting the threat from Ukip means not just fighting austerity—but tackling its racism head on
Scapegoating migrants is central to how it does this. And even though Ukip is not directly undercutting Labour’s vote, the fact that it has used racism to grow in Labour areas shows it’s a threat.
There is growing anger in society.
Ukip isn’t taking Labour’s voters in droves now. But in the absence of serious resistance to austerity and a genuine political alternative, it has the potential to feed off that anger and grow.
A recent protest called by Ukip in Bolton gave a glimpse of how it might try to do just that.
A number of different protests took place at a full council meeting in Bolton at the end of November.
They were each called by different groups, including Ukip, a bedroom tax campaign, and the Unison union and Bolton trades council.
But the Ukip one was the largest and most dominant, with perhaps 100 people on it.
Its protest criticised the Labour council for awarding a grant to a solicitor’s firm while cutting public services.
But the firm happened to be owned by an Asian family, and the protest was tinged with an undercurrent of racism.
Combining anger at austerity with racism is the kind of dangerous and toxic mixture that Ukip could thrive on.
So confronting the threat from Ukip means not just fighting austerity—but tackling its racism head on.
Labour responded to Nuttall’s election as Ukip leader by claiming “the only thing you need to know” about him is that he wants to privatise the NHS.
It didn’t mention the fact that he’s also a vicious racist.
It’s welcome to see Labour defending the NHS—particularly after some of its previous leaders such as Tony Blair championed privatisation.
But a left wing alternative has to be anti-racist too. Unfortunately, many in Labour instead think they can put a left spin on Ukip’s racism.
Labour’s candidate for Manchester mayor Andy Burnham attacked immigration in parliament earlier this month.
He said immigration was “not working for the more deprived areas of this country”, and added that “there is nothing socialist about open borders”.
Shockingly, he suggested that immigration was “undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets”.
He then had the nerve to insist he was not “pandering” to racism.
But “pandering” is exactly what Burnham was doing—and it’s disastrous.
Ukip can grow off the back of racism because, as a proper racist party, it offers the real deal.
The same won’t work for Labour.
Mimicking Ukip’s racism won’t stop it, but give it credibility and fuel its growth.
Stopping Ukip means starving it of the oxygen of racism—discrediting it and making it unacceptable.
That means defending migrants and free movement, not attacking them.