Labour Eyes UKIP Threat as Lawmakers Shift Views on Immigration

  • New UKIP leader Diane James says Labour seats ‘ripe’ to fall
  • UKIP came second to Labour in 44 seats in 2015 election

As Britain’s Labour Party swerves further left than it’s been in decades, its lawmakers see a menace from the opposite end of the political spectrum: the U.K. Independence Party.

The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union exposed the danger the main opposition party faces. Its most prominent members of Parliament campaigned to stay in the bloc even as 37 percent of its supporters opted for Brexit, UKIP’s defining goal. That suggests the anti-immigration party is more in tune with working-class voters on the topic of free movement of EU citizens than Labour.

“UKIP is a symbol of why Labour needs to be much clearer about its values,” Lisa Nandy, a Labour lawmaker representing Wigan in northwest England, said in an interview at the party’s annual conference in nearby Liverpool. Two-thirds of her constituents voted for Brexit “because of a very deep sense of dissatisfaction with the economy in the U.K.: insecure, low-paid work, unemployment, and when you throw free movement in the mix, it’s dynamite.”

Jeremy Corbyn

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Labour is in an existential crisis after a bruising leadership campaign capped by the re-election of avowed socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader for the second time in a year despite losing the confidence of most of his lawmakers. The party lags Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives by as much as 15 points in opinion polls, amid accusations that it’s turning in on itself rather than holding the also-divided Tories to account over their Brexit strategy.

‘UKIP’s Lawn’

For its part, UKIP is on a high after winning the Brexit vote and coming second in 120 constituencies in the 2015 general election, 75 held by the Conservatives and 44 by Labour. With May “parking her tanks on UKIP’s lawn” with talk of controlling immigration in a Brexit deal, Labour is vulnerable, according to Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University.

“There’s no doubt that the greatest potential for UKIP at this point lies more within Labour territory than it does in Conservative territory,” Goodwin said in an interview. UKIP “has established quite a strong relationship with voters that the Labour Party should be competitive with, namely blue-collar, working-class, less well-educated voters.”

UKIP’s new leader, Diane James, told the BBC earlier this month that Labour is “dysfunctional” and UKIP is “ripe” to take some of its parliamentary seats. After Corbyn twice refused to say in a BBC interview on Sunday that free movement should end, her party put out a statement headed “Corbyn turns his nose up at traditional Labour supporters.”

Ending Exploitation

Corbyn again failed to make any commitment to cut immigration in his closing conference speech on Wednesday, saying a Labour government would act to stop low pay and the exploitation of migrant labor, reducing the number of migrant workers in the process.

The threat hasn’t gone unnoticed in Labour’s ranks. The party conference this week featured events entitled “After Brexit: Reclaiming Patriotism From the Right,” “Labour Versus UKIP: Whose Industrial Heartlands in Brexit Britain?” and “How Could Labour Stop Immigration Driving Away its Voters?”

Kate Hoey, one of a handful of Labour lawmakers who campaigned for Brexit, said that in rallies nationwide, “people would come up to me afterwards and say thank goodness you’re here, there’s a Labour voice. They felt completely abandoned by the Labour leadership.”

Record Migration

Net migration to Britain was a near-record 327,000 in the year through March, including 180,000 EU citizens, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics data. During the referendum campaign, voters cited competition for jobs, lower wages and pressure on services such as schools and hospitals among reasons to vote for Brexit.

There are signs some key Labour lawmakers are re-thinking their views on the benefits of free movement. The party’s home-affairs spokesman, Andy Burnham, had this to say about his constituents in Leigh, northwest England: "They are not narrow-minded, nor xenophobic. But they do have a problem with people taking them for granted and with unlimited, unfunded, unskilled migration which damages their own living standards.”

Nigel Farage

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

There may be some respite for Labour from a possible loss of UKIP momentum after longtime leader, Nigel Farage, resigned upon achieving his goal of Brexit.

"We’re not talking about the same scenario that we were in 2015, where UKIP had a very prominent leader and a clear rallying cry,” said Justin Fisher, who heads the politics department at Brunel University in London.

Still, UKIP knows it has an opening.

"Corbyn indicating that he is relaxed about current migration levels is reckless, irresponsible and selfish,” said Steven Woolfe, UKIP migration spokesman and one of its prominent voices, in a statement. "With gross levels of inward migration at a record high, it is yet another example at how out of touch Corbyn is with the British public and his own voters."

— With assistance by Anna Edwards

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