Abi Wilkinson: Labour can surely see off Paul Nuttall's reheated Thatcherism
The message needs to go out that the new Ukip leader is just a Tory who’s changed the colour of his rosette.
Paul Nuttall wants to convince you that under his leadership Ukip will pose a serious threat to Labour because convincing you of that is Paul Nuttall’s job. Many journalists will happily take this claim and run with it for a variety of different reasons: because their employers are, to some degree, supportive of Ukip’s agenda, because Labour’s internal conflicts and poor polling make it seem plausible that almost anything could pose a threat to the party and, perhaps most significantly, because political journalism craves drama. The fact is that much of the actual process of politics is deadly dull, and anything that might spice things up a bit is vulnerable to exaggeration (not that 2016 has particularly lacked spice, as years go).
Nuttall is not as slick an operator as Nigel Farage, as his stumbling, amateurish appearance on The Andrew Marr show demonstrated quite clearly. Sure, he’s going to milk that 'ordinary bloke you could have a pint with' schtick for all its worth, but - despite what some reporting will have you believe - that’ll only get you so far. Even in, and I speak from experience here, t’North.
Anecdotally I’ve heard that Corbyn often connects with people quite well on a face-to-face basis, but that’s not something that tends to come across very well on camera. For whatever reason, he’s unable to mask his distrust of journalists, and for people watching at home that hostility can feel like its directed at the viewer themselves.
So what we’ve got are two imperfect media performers with two quite different pitches to the electorate. Nuttall’s is quite simple, and will be heavily focused on one major topic: the EU referendum and, particularly, freedom of movement rules. Labour’s problem is that its line on this is quite fuzzy and confusing, largely because its target voters are split straight down the middle on the issue. The party is hesitant to come out with something that pleases one group and alienates the other as it attempts to hold together a shaky coalition of city-dwelling liberals and comparatively socially conservative, but economically left-leaning, voters who’re more likely to reside in smaller towns in Wales, the Midlands and the North.
Of course, it’s the latter group that Nuttall’s trying to poach. And in his effort to do so he’s relying on them prioritising immigration above every over policy issue, and on Labour failing to come up with a compromise stance that a broad enough spectrum of the electorate find satisfactory. Though it does seem like the immigration debate has totally taken over politics in recent months, I think both of these assumptions are rather bold. It’s quite possible Labour could argue for negotiating some changes to freedom of movement as it currently stands while avoiding both the xenophobic rhetoric of Ukip and the economic disaster of the catastrophic form of Brexit it advocates. It’s easy to cite Trump’s win, Hofer’s close miss in Austria and the coming LePen vs. Fillon horror show as evidence the far-right is on an unstoppable role – a pessimism I’ve been guilty of myself at times.
However, in every country a whole host of locally specific factors are relevant, and when it comes to Nuttall there’s something of an elephant in the room. Not only did he used to be a Conservative party member, he’s advocated many policies that are considered a bit extreme even by many current members of that party. He wants a flat income tax, for example, which would mean taking more money from poorer people and less from the rich. He’s also been enthusiastic about NHS privatisation, a policy that is hugely unpopular amongst the majority of the electorate.
Polls suggest that most of the economically right-leaning Ukip supporters who may have supported these kinds of policies have already returned to the Conservatives. The people Nuttall is hoping to target – long-term Labour voters who’re dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and looking for change – are unlikely to feel particularly fondly about his reheated Thatcherism. Many remember how it devastated their communities the first time round.
Farage is economically right-wing as well, of course, but his rise to prominence took Jeremy Corbyn's party somewhat by surprise. With Nuttall, the opportunity exists for Labour to define him in the public imagination before he has the chance to define himself. They’ve already gone hard on NHS privatisation, which is a start, and when Marr grilled him on the same topic the Ukip leader struggled to respond. The message needs to be repeated again and again: Paul Nuttall is just a Tory who’s changed the colour of his rosette. The man absolutely does not have your best interests at heart.
For it to work, Labour urgently needs to clarify its own messaging on certain key issues – and continued internal squabbling only allows other parties more space to define the terms of the debate. Get this right, though, and someone as Thatcherite as Nuttall will have no chance at all in Labour’s traditional heartlands. The so-called Ukip threat could well turn out to be even more a storm in a teacup than it was in 2015.
Picture by: Alastair Grant/AP/Press Association Images