Healey and the UKIP threat

Labour MP John Healey has an article on the Guardian website entitled “Why Labour must win back working class voters from Ukip”. He argues that the Tories won the general election at least in part because Labour lost many of its voters to the xenophobic right, and he outlines polices he says can regain their electoral support.

Healey wraps up his anti-Ukip message in progressive-sounding language, for example by referring to the need for “active trade unions to protect the pay and conditions of workers” in order to combat Ukip. He also talks about “an entrepreneurial industrial policy that creates good jobs”. Maybe I’m being unduly sceptical, but that strikes me as mostly window dressing.

Healey is hardly going to support the repeal of the anti-union laws that have contributed to the weakening of trade union organisation, is he? Nor is he likely to advocate the level of state intervention in the economy that would be necessary to restore the UK’s manufacturing base.

In practice, I suspect, Healey’s anti-Ukip strategy will concentrate on stepping up Labour’s anti-migrant rhetoric. By giving legitimacy to Ukip’s stance on immigration, that would have the effect of strengthening Ukip’s appeal to voters, not undermining it.

In his article Healey heavily hypes up the threat Ukip poses to Labour, asserting that “Ukip hurt us in Tory-Labour marginals by eating into our working-class support”. That possibility cannot be excluded – it may be, for example, that an increase in the Ukip vote contributed to Ed Balls’ defeat in Morley and Outwood – but in the absence of an empirical study of voting patterns in those seats all Healey can offer to substantiate his claim is anecdotal evidence and guesswork.

He finds it significant that “the Ukip share of the vote was higher in Labour-held seats than in Conservative-held ones”. But that is what you would expect, given Ukip’s appeal to C2 and DE voters, who tend to make up a larger proportion of the electorate in Labour constituencies. It does not follow that Ukip drew more of its support from working-class Labour voters than it did from Tory voters.

It is in fact a well-established feature of Ukip’s rise that its votes have been “overwhelmingly stolen from the Conservatives”. Of those who voted Ukip in 2015, according to Lord Ashcroft’s figures, only 14% had voted Labour in 2010, whereas 43% had voted Tory. More of them had voted Lib Dem in 2010 (18%) than voted Labour.

Healey writes ominously: “I saw this rising Ukip threat in my own South Yorkshire constituency”. He fails to mention that he coasted home in his Wentworth and Dearne seat with an absolute majority, winning 56.9% of the vote. It is true that Ukip finished in second place, having increased their vote by 16.7% compared with 2010. But their candidate still finished well behind Healey, with 24.9% of the vote.

In order for Ukip to pose a real threat in Healey’s seat, they would need to make serious inroads into the Labour vote. But there is little evidence they are doing that. Ukip’s advance in Wentworth and Dearne was at the expense of the Lib Dems and Tories, who lost 13.5% and 2.7% of their 2010 vote respectively. Healey, by contrast, increased his vote by 6.3%.

Healey’s views presumably carry some weight within the parliamentary party, as he was appointed to the Labour taskforce set up last year to address the electoral threat from Ukip.

As part of his campaign to alert Labour to the Ukip menace, Healey tells us, he “got Dr Matthew Goodwin, one of the co-authors of the excellent Revolt on the Right, to discuss Ukip with Labour MPs”. But Goodwin is the last person Labour MPs should be listening to, given his record of grossly exaggerating Ukip’s popular support and electoral prospects.

Here is Goodwin being interviewed by the Telegraph in March:

Basing his forecasts on visits to Ukip’s target seats, he said: “My view is that Ukip is likely to win six Parliamentary constituencies. They have pretty much got three or four seats now in the bag unless there is a monumental mistake and a car crash before May 7.”

Prof Goodwin – one of the most widely respected experts on the rise of Ukip – said national polls, which show Ukip’s support on around 14 per cent, tended to underestimate support for the Eurosceptic party….

Prof Goodwin forecast “a far more convincing win for Farage than people currently acknowledge” in Thanet South, where his campaign was being run in below the radar ward by ward public meetings.

This all turned out to be complete nonsense, of course. As we know, in reality Ukip got 12.6% of the vote nationally and just a single MP, while Nigel Farage was easily defeated in Thanet South, gaining 32.4% of the vote compared with 38.1% for the victorious Tory candidate.

One of the Labour-held seats that Goodwin repeatedly warned was under serious threat from Ukip was Great Grimsby. Based on the 2010 general election result this was a highly marginal constituency, where the incumbent Labour MP Austin Mitchell had just held on with 32.7% of the vote, only narrowly ahead of the Tory candidate on 30.5%.

In April last year Goodwin went so far as to assert that “Great Grimsby is probably the most favourable seat for Ukip” and helpfully offered his advice to Farage that the Ukip leader should consider standing there. Austin Mitchell dismissed Goodwin’s comments as a “joke”, and he wasn’t far wrong. Ukip in fact finished in third place with 25% of the vote, well behind the successful Labour candidate Melanie Onn who got 39.8%.

If he takes his inspiration from Matthew Goodwin, it’s no wonder Healey’s analysis of Ukip’s challenge to Labour is flawed. I’m all in favour of an objective assessment of the effect that the rise of Ukip has had on the Labour vote, but Healey’s evidence-free, Goodwin-inspired scaremongering is certainly not it.

First published by Socialist Unity in May 2015