As Labour turns its gaze to the looming threat of Ukip, they run a serious risk of losing a raft of core voters to a resurgent Green party.
Labour are worried. As illustrated by the meeting of parliamentarians on Monday evening, many within the party desire a change of approach, without a clear consensus on what that should entail. As Marcus Roberts of the Fabian Society suggests, the rise of Ukip doesn’t just pose a problem for Labour’s strategy; it splits the party right at its core.
The narrow avoidance of utter humiliation in Heywood & Middleton by a mere 600 votes has sparked panic. A significant number of MPs are now urging Miliband to present a stronger Labour voice on the core Ukip issues of immigration and welfare, if they are to avoid losing ground in threatened Labour seats such as Great Grimsby and Rotherham. As announced today, Miliband has responded; asking four of his most senior MPs to create an anti-UK Independence Party unit, explicitly tasked with blunting the progress of the ‘Kippers’ into Labour heartlands.
Not all agree with this change of tactics; some strategists, such as John McTernan, hypothesise that the gains under New Labour amongst urbanised, ethnically diverse and progressive voters in big population centres such as Manchester and London mean that a small erosion of the traditional working-class base won’t be significant in May 2015. However, according to Roberts this view is misguided. If you travel to somewhere like Southampton’s Itchen constituency, he argues, where outgoing MP John Denham clung on to a tiny majority in 2010, it is evident that many Labour MPs are conscious that large numbers of working class voters are disillusioned with the state of cosmopolitan Britain, and feel enticed by Ukips powerful narrative of a return to so-called traditional values. Labour votes will leave in their masses in such constituencies, it is claimed, unless the party changes.
This all points to a despondent Labour team undecided on how to fight an election battle on two fronts, not a shadow team preparing to assume power in a mere seven months. But given repeated Ukip surges within the polls, it would appear that the EU will increasingly become the cornerstone issue of the election, which remains a policy area where Labour fundamentally lack clarity. As Miliband feels the pressure to give voters something tangible to hold on to, a shift in Labour stance to the right, probably through a proposed cap to the EU’s free movement of labour or curbs on welfare for foreign families, seems inevitable.
And who will remain to champion the traditional Labour left? Enter the Green party.
The Greens share many of the characteristics of Ukip, if at polarised ends of the spectrum. They are a marginal party, benefitting from being in a position where their core policies are well-established and possess a base of dedicated activists. Traditionally strong amongst the middle-class, university-educated, and environmentally-conscious, the Greens have nonetheless made significant attempts to re-cast themselves as a party driving for a more equal and fair society, by interlinking the social, economic and environmental.
Evidence shows that the Greens are speaking out on policy issues which are popular with broad sections of the British public; according to a YouGov poll, 84% of people are opposed to privatization of the NHS, 68% support the nationalizing of energy companies and 66% advocate returning our railways to the state – all key Green party policies. They are the only party to openly oppose fracking, and the scrapping of Trident. These are brave, exciting policies that, given the platform, would reverberate with the electorate.
Okay, very well you might say, they’re a ‘friendly’ party, but one that lacks any credible chance of power. A vote for them would be a waste, Labour strategists will argue in the run-up to May, increasing chances of returning a Conservative-led government.
However, there is increasing evidence to suggest the Greens possess a huge pool of potential voters – 33% of Lib Dems, 22% of Labour supports and even 6% of Tories would contemplate switching their allegiances to the Greens, according to another piece of YouGov polling.
For this potential to be reached, the Greens need to get out there. And fast. Yet, whilst increasingly popular at grassroots, with membership swelling under Natalie Bennett’s leadership, they remain unpopular with the most important group of all: the media.
As put by the New Statesman’s Willard Foxton, much of this comes down to the fact that their media operation just isn’t very good. Improve that, and the rest should follow. Is the answer hiring a load of PR executives? Probably not. It would not sit well with the humble, honest party that cares deeply about the processes and not just the outcomes. However, being able to publicise the groundswell of support calling for increased airtime, such as the petition to include Bennett in the television debates, which has garnered nearly 170,000 signatures at my last look, would be a good start. If the Greens can simply get a platform in this electoral showroom, you can expect the party aspiring to be the real left of UK politics will do handsomely.