For the UK Independence party, the EU referendum result on June 24 was mission accomplished. Now, the party that has been a one-man band has lost its one man. Nigel Farage is off to lurk by the lifts in Trump Tower, hoping for another golden selfie with the president-elect. It does leave you wondering: what is the point of Ukip in Britain after Brexit?
For the Labour party, however, there is no room for complacency. Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, Leicester City winning the Premier League title, 2016 has been the year of the long shot. And now we have Paul Nuttall, Mr Farage’s replacement as party leader, pushing the idea that Ukip can supplant Labour as the party of working people.
Yet when Mr Nuttall is not talking about his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, he is championing NHS privatisation, defending Vladimir Putin and denying climate change. This is someone who talks about representing working people but seems rather work-shy himself, with the 11th worst voting record of any MEP in the whole of Europe.
Mr Nuttall and Ukip are not equipped to represent the interests of working people in any constructive sense. But they are adept at playing on fears and concerns around immigration. And this is where the real threat to Labour lies. We have utterly failed to engage on the issue, creating a vacuum for Ukip to step into.
For too long, Labour’s approach on immigration has been to divert, dismiss and ignore. We focused on the economic benefits, but nobody is listening to that case. The message from the doorstep is clear: “immigration may be good for the economy, but it hasn’t been good for my economy”. The effects of immigration are not measured, they are experienced. This is visceral for voters.
Labour must urgently make the progressive case for a clear and coherently managed system, because it is the only way to build a society based on the values that we cherish — solidarity, compassion and civic pride. In practice this means ending freedom of movement as we currently know it, replacing it with sector-by-sector dialogues, skills-gap analyses, quotas and work permits. I believe Theresa May, the prime minister, should be seeking an EU-wide deal on this basis, before opening negotiations on the other pillars of the single market.
Acknowledging people’s legitimate concerns, respecting their desire for control and making the progressive case for managed migration will help us to comprehensively defeat Ukip. But Labour must also make it clear to the British people that we, not Ukip, are the true patriots. We love this country — we are proud of our past, and we are confident about our future. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that while both strain every sinew to defend and promote the national interest, the nationalist believes their country is supreme and therefore tends to treat other countries with contempt. The patriot, on the other hand, treats others with the respect they deserve.
The coming years will be defined by Brexit and Britain’s ability to forge alliances as we seek to strike new trade deals and to carve out a different role in the world. It is therefore deeply troubling that we are being represented by a Conservative leadership that is taking is cues from Ukip. The gung-ho hubris of this band of isolationists is most unhelpful.
The need for political leadership that understands the business of international relationships and coalition-building has never been greater. And this presents the second important opportunity for my party. Our principled opposition to the referendum in the run-up to the 2015 election is still warmly appreciated across the EU. We need to build on this, while continuing to call out the narrow isolationism of Ukip and the hard-Brexiters, which is doing so much damage to our national interest.
If Labour is to regain the trust of the British people, we must develop the right narrative and policies on immigration, enable the British people to see that we are the only true patriots and convince them that the need for internationalist political leadership has never been greater.
The paradox of Brexit is that Ukip is entirely unsuited to making it work. Labour, on the other hand, is the only party that can truly make a success of it. If we can get these points across effectively, then there is no doubt that we can and will comprehensively defeat Ukip, both in our heartlands and across the country.