Brexit More Likely After Ukip Surge in Votes
Note on UK elections by Denis MacShane, former Europe Minister
The big question is do the Conservatives and Labour deal with the rise of Ukip by pandering to Ukip demands about the EU and immigration. If so ‘Brexit’ – Britain leaving the EU becomes more likely as any referendum in 2017 will be impossible to win on the basis of free movement of workers as one of the four freedoms at the heart of membership of the EU.
For the last 15 years Conservative party politicians have been attacking the EU and saying immigration into Britain needs to be controlled. Voters listened to the Tory anti-EU, anti-immmigrant message and decided to vote for the party that wants to isolate Britain from Europe and put up barriers.
Thursday’s result which will be confirmed by Ukip doubling its MEPs on Sunday night shows that British politics is now continental. Like in France, Italy, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands here is a large anti-European block of votes which does not trust the main parties, and blames the European Union for national problems.
Without a radical change in the EU’s economic policy and a real effort to integrate and involve Europe’s national parliamentarians, Europe’s political crisis which has grown out of the 2008 economic crisis can only worsen and Britain which was the last major nation in West Europe to sign the Treaty of Rome in 1972 will be the first major nation to leave a European Union as hostility to Europe has become normal politics in England, not just in Ukip but in mainstream parties.
In Rotherham where I was an MP Ukip won 10 council seats out of 63. Three of the new Ukip councillors are Conservative Party wannabe councillors who moved to Ukip as the Tories are unpopular. They now will enjoy a £12,000 allowance. Rotherham elected 3 BNP councillors in recent years and it seems that the BNP votes has moved in toto to Ukip. In one ward, the deputy leader of the Council, a highly respected, hard-working Asian councillor lost to Ukip by 39 votes. Respect, the anti-Labour Party, won 200 votes and this split in the left vote let in Ukip.
20 years ago Lib Dem councillors seemed to make a breakthrough and in the 1976 by-election the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant National Front party won 7 per cent of the vote.
In my twenty years as an MP the question of immigration was a top issue. I encountered hostliity against Pakistani immigrants of a most venemous, openly racist kind. Then hostliity against Kosovars fleeing the Balkan wars. There were ugly comments against other asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa. More lately there were strong remarks about East European immigrants workers. Property owners in Rotherham welcomed them as a source of profitable rented-out accommodation. New Slovakian and Polish food stores opened and Tesco had shelves for East European food. The Catholic church welcomed the increase in mass-goers.
As minister and then a Labour representative in EU political groups I argued that the UK should support local workers by increasing apprenticeships, and building council homes. I urged the enforcing of the EU agency workers directive to stop exploitation by employment agencies which Rotherham firms used to hire workers from abroad in preference to local workers. I said that tougher minimum wage inspections were needed to stop the low pay which new EU workers had to accept, I pleaded in vain with Labour ministers to support for EU working hours rules so reduce the ruthless exploitation of East European workers and transfer of employment to incomers. The latter became the norm for small businesses with the consequent result that many Rotherham workers felt they were excluded from local labour markets.
Sadly under both Tony Blair and especially Gordon Brown there was strong opposition to worker protection measures and in particular a sustained refusal to support EU labour market directives which would have helped British workers faced with employers ready to exploit European workers. Gordon Brown did say he was in favour of ‘British jobs for British workers’ but on the ground employers were given the green light to exploit non-unionised, low-wage employees from the EU at the expense of British workers.
I am not sure how long the Ukip surge will be sustained and there is a degree of flakiness about some of their candidates, now councillors. The local Tories were unable to provide a coherent opposition. The Tories leading anti-European, Foreign Secretary, William Hague is Rotherham born and bred. Since he became leader of the Conservative Party in 1997, he had made anti-Europeanisn the beating heart of his political offer. This is in tune with many in his native Rotherham. But they think Ukip is more serious about getting out of Europe or putting up barriers to foreigners coming to the UK. It was after all Tory Ministers who sent out vans recently telling unwanted foreigners to “Go Home.” William Hague has helped sow the anti-foreigner, anti-Europe wind and is now reaping the Ukip whirlwind.
But does Labour have a real counter-offer?