It is easy to laugh at Ukip, but they have changed the course of British politics, writes Keir Bradwell
The demise of the United Kingdom Independence party has been every bit as shambolic as its heyday. Lacking money, members, and dignity, we are awaiting to see whether the death knell will be the financial burden of libel damages, the lack of any kind of leadership, or sheer decrepitude. The looming leadership election – just four months since the last one – may be the only one in history (perhaps bar the last Tory one) in which every candidate secretly hopes they do not actually win.
For those of us who objected to the virulent nationalism perpetrated by Ukip in the buildup to the Brexit referendum, the party will not be missed. Even at the height of its powers, Ukip was defined by its embarrassingly amateurish operations and its willingness to pander to the extremes – but it is undeniable that Nigel Farage was successful in acheiving his goal of completely transforming British political discourse. He harnessed fear about immigration, and a sense of national decline in a way other politicians were unable.
These sentiments have not disappeared. Immigration is no less of an issue today than it was when Ukip won four million votes in 2015, and nor is the idea of ‘national pride’. Instead of standing alone, they have now been incorporated into a wider narrative about our exit from the European Union. Ukip’s agenda is still here – where did their votes go?
Ask a UKIP voter in 2015 about what our future relationship with the EU should be, and it would not be too far from the current Conservative settlement. We are currently leaving the customs union and the single market. We will have more control over immigration from Europe – despite the fact that we will need to market ourselves much better to prospective migrants – and we will be free to negotiate (almost inevitably poor) trade deals with the rest of the world. And while blue passport-gate exposed the government’s petulance, particularly after we were reminded that this has no relationship to our EU membership, it played into the nationalist symbolism typical of Ukip. A return to a non-existent golden age. Why would you vote for Ukip now if the Conservatives can give you everything you want?
Yet, the Ukip vote was split fairly evenly between Conservatives and Labour in the last election. This is evidence that both parties appear to be unwilling to confront the narratives that Farage created in the run up to 2015. Though Labour’s Monday announcement that the party would seek to keep Britain in a customs union is welcome, it still does not genuinely embrace our European identity, nor does it directly challenge the Ukip’s war against free movement. It is worth remembering that Ukip’s values are not Labour’s values. We are not introverted nationalists, we are the party that was instrumental in the creation of Nato; the party that embraces international cooperation. By pandering to the rightwing Brexit orthodoxy, we reject by implication an area of Labour history of which we can be proud.
Our current Brexit stance does not make sense when we compare it to the six tests that Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, proposed at the beginning of the negotiation. The final of the six – ‘does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?’ – cannot yet be conclusively proven either way, but according to the most recent substantive evidence, growth will be five per cent lower if we leave the single market. Our current negotiating position fails according to even our own criteria.
Perhaps there is another way. Labour could break away from the Conservative/Ukip orthodoxy. It could argue, rightly, that it is impossible to negotiate a hard exit from Europe that genuinely improves the lives of ordinary Britons. Our current policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’, gradually softening though it is, might be a vote-winner, but the next election is over four years away, and the expiry of article 50 just one. And is not the whole purpose of having Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader that we reject the calculated electoral gambles of the Tories in favour of authenticity? We should remind ourselves what it is that Labour stands for, and throw our support behind the single market. We should realise just how far the Conservatives have swung. And we should not try to follow them.
Keir Bradwell is a member of Progress. He tweets at @keirbradwell
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