In just over a week there will be a by-election in Stoke-on-Trent in a seat that has elected a Labour member of Parliament since it was created in 1950. At the last election, in this majority working class seat, UKIP surged to 22.7% of the vote, a swing of 9.4% from Labour to the UK Independence Party.
During normal times this by-election would not even make the news, but 2016 was an extraordinary time in UK politics and there is a feeling that a shift is under way that could see Labour’s hold on seats like this challenged by parties offering a populist anti-immigrant narrative. Just this week, YouGov polling came out that suggests that the Labour Party are now the third choice party for working class voters, behind the Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party; an astonishing snapshot of sentiment that would totally reverse the position of Labour in its heartlands.
It seems clear to me, and other moderates in the Labour Party, that is simply not possible for the Labour Party to appeal to Guardian-reading metropolitan liberals (such as myself) whilst also appealing to their core working-class vote. If they move to the right, and embrace a tougher stance on immigration, they will lose metropolitan liberals to the Liberal Democrats. If they remain on the left, they will see a gradual ebbing away of support from their core vote to UKIP and the Tories.
What is frustrating about the above is that the Labour Party should be making gains from the Conservative Party in by-elections like this, especially when the headlines are dominated by a funding crisis in the NHS and when the Best British Film BAFTA went to a film by Ken Loach that skewers the government for its heartless approach to disability living allowance and welfare recipients.
The road back to government for Labour is going to be a long one, especially given the fact that 2015 saw them lose 40 seats to the SNP in Scotland. But, it starts by facing a difficult dilemma over the future direction of the party. If the Labour Party is to stay true to itself it must tell a convincing narrative about the injustices faced by those at the bottom of society that places the blame where it belongs – with the government. The reason Ken Loach’s film has been so popular is that it tells a story that resonates with people, because they can relate to how difficult life is for all of us at the moment, but especially for those whose lives are affected by the arbitrary decisions made by an uncaring bureaucracy.
At a time when economists are expecting inflationary pressure to lower people’s standards of living, Labour needs to be there to challenge the populist narrative of the right. Immigration is not to blame for the difficulties people face in their lives, but when people are suffering it is understandable that they are willing to accept the easy answers offered by UKIP and the right-wing press. The only way forward is to keep challenging this narrative by focusing on the everyday suffering imposed on people by the choices made by this government.