Janan Ganesh: Ukip has future as long as Labour alienates white working class

Let us not be coy: there are some on the left who are stumped by poor white people

A jaded town on the Essex riviera is all the UK Independence party has to show for its nearly four million votes at last year's general election. Economically, Clacton struggles. Electorally, it is the most expensive seat in parliament.

Inequity in the voting system is one reason to believe Ukip has no future. Internal acrimony is another cue to start readying the party’s mausoleum. When it flunked a promising byelection last month, a commentator who has seen political sensations flicker brightly and fizzle out sensed that this populist movement – an English National party by another name – was “finished”.

It need not be. Years will pass before we know the consequences of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader of the opposition Labour party but the alienation of working-class whites, Ukip’s quarry, has to be among them. His socialism will merely lose him the next election resoundingly.

It is his cultural (or countercultural) instincts that carry the potential to stain his party forever, especially in the eyes of the people Labour was founded to help.


Yapping identity politics

There are many votes in lavish spending, confiscatory taxes on the rich and wage protection: not enough to win an election, or even to lose respectably, but many. There are virtually none in unilateral nuclear disarmament, moral equivocation over terrorism and the yapping identity politics of the university campus and the mid-afternoon Twitter timeline.

When people have forgotten Corbyn wanted to stop companies paying dividends unless they paid staff a living wage, they will remember his search for a “reasonable accommodation” with Argentina over the Falklands. When they strain to recall which of the utilities he targeted for renationalisation, they will know him for abjuring any shoot-to-kill policy against terrorists. Nobody recalls the marginal tax rates favoured by Labour in its manifesto of 1983. They recall its leader turning up to a war memorial in a slightly askew overcoat.

Britons tell themselves that culture wars are gauchely American but politics is not a species of economics here either. There is the same potency of symbols and values. There is the same pang of dispossession among poor whites, especially those who line the eastern edge of England and populate the deindustrialised north.

Labour began losing these people long ago but Corbyn can seal the estrangement.

If the apologetic metropolitanism of his predecessor, Ed Miliband, was too much for the northerners who went over to Ukip, the only mystery is where those riled by Corbyn's unapologetic version end up going. Many will not vote. A few who can swallow their ancestral aversion will go Tory.

But Ukip still has what it takes to win the larger share of these votes: economic populism, rhetorical bluntness, name recognition. The shambles of its leadership is not fatal.

Populism does not attract people looking for a government but people bored of having their plain sensibilities laughed at. If Corbyn leads Labour into a general election, Ukip need only stand still to move forward.

New Labour was always misread as a middle-class takeover of a working-class movement. It was something close to the opposite. By hardening its line on crime and defence, by cloaking it unsqueamishly in the British flag, by taking school standards and welfare abuse seriously, Tony Blair returned a party captured by the whims of the Brahmin left to actual working people.

Cabinet members such as David Blunkett, John Reid and George Robertson, the right-wing union leader Ken Jackson: each a notch in the spine of New Labour, and none a perfumed Islingtonian.

Ethnic majority

Let us not be coy: there are some on the left who are stumped by poor white people. Their ethnic majority status seems to muffle sympathy for them. Their toughness on immigration is an intra-family embarrassment in Labour, like a grandparent’s enduring taste for minstrel comedy.

Their lifestyles can arouse a priggish distaste.

Poor white Americans have their stories told faithfully. There are John Updike novels and Bruce Springsteen albums about the banality and frustration of the rust belt.

The people around Corbyn are less clear-eyed. They think of poor white Britons as improbably romantic heroes – the Jarrow marchers, the miners in the film Pride – if they think about them at all.

Even at their worst, as a lobby group for established wealth, something can be said for Conservatives: they like the people they are trying to help. Ukip has a future as long as Labour is run by people who embrace everything about the working classes apart from what they say, do and think. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016