Conservatives and Labour must tackle UKIP or be further weakened by it

While public dissatisfaction feeds UKIP's success the Conservative and Labour party simply legitimize UKIP by echoing it

The recent by-elections in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton showed that the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is now a problem for the Left and Right of British politics. Both the Conservative and Labour parties responded by toughening their anti-immigration rhetoric. Prime Minister David Cameron announced he is considering negotiations within the EU to emphasise free movement of labour, i.e. people with jobs, rather than free movement of people “to prevent people moving around the EU to claim benefits”. Going even further, London Mayor Boris Johnson has called for quotas to be imposed on migrants from the EU, which would involve a major re-writing of the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

Labour reacted similarly. Some in the party are urging, leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband to replace free movement of labour with “fair” movement of labour. Frank Field, the old welfare minister under Blair has even said Miliband should go further than Cameron and impose work restrictions on the ten new EU member states from Eastern Europe until their economies grow closer to the size of the UK. In his first detailed response, Miliband said Labour would impose “stronger border controls and laws to stop the exploitation that has undermined wages of local workers, with reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements.” Although this statement touches on other issues – such as the NHS and education – a strong stance against immigration has been central to the discussion which has followed from Labour officials and the media alike. Further, sources close to Miliband said he would go further than his recent statement; including extending the period EU migrants must be in the UK before claiming out-of-work benefits to six months and to prevent benefits being sent back to families in other countries.

Unfortunately, neither party has made any effort to respond to possible root causes of the public’s turn to UKIP. Neal Lawson, chair of the centre-left pressure group Compass has said the major parties must combat issues such as inequality to tackle UKIP. Miliband hints at this in his recent statement claiming that some “feel left behind by our economy and left out of our politics have turned to UKIP in anger”. He even claims that Labour should “turn the despair and cynicism which UKIP thrives into a positive force for change”. However, he then claims that this “is why we have developed a new approach to immigration” and goes on to discuss Labour’s tougher stance.

The latest Guardian/ ICM poll has shown that while immigration is the second most important issue, the majority of those polled were more concerned about the NHS. Further, jobs and wages were a close third. UKIP appreciates this and, in fact, its victory in Clacton was down to a campaign which focused on the cost of living crisis and the NHS, with immigration a lower priority. UKIP also works on stimulating the apathetic electorate. Some commentators have noted that while Conservatives and Labour concentrate on deficit reduction and pragmatic concerns, Nigel Farage excites them with a presentation of patriotism and pride. Further, while Cameron maintains a charisma in the discussion of these problems Miliband often lacks any presence.

Despite the more leftist policies proposed by Ed Miliband, such as an increased minimum wage and a mansion tax, the party looks set to sew its own demise by moving to join UKIP on the right. The tragedy is that if it were to combat UKIP on issues such as poverty and inequality it would stand a much better chance – given that these areas are traditionally its strong suit. As Neal Lawson has said “even if it was just about votes and not doing what is right, Labour can never out-UKIP UKIP on immigration” and so one wonders why it would try. Similar, one commentator notes “if the Left is not prepared to perish for human rights, for interventionism, for justice and for liberty, then it will face a more ignominious extinction”.

As UKIP continues to grow one is left wondering how long it will take the two major parties to catch up and deal with the real concerns of voters – instead of pandering to UKIPs easy answers.