Allan Massie: Ukip’s Labour challenge overstated

Ukip MP Douglas Carswell swearing an oath of allegiance at the Houses of Parliament in central London. Picture: Getty
Ukip MP Douglas Carswell swearing an oath of allegiance at the Houses of Parliament in central London. Picture: Getty
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INTENTION to target ‘rust-belt’ fails to grasp either party’s draw for voters faced with a general election, writes Allan Massie

We all know the jokes about Labour’s dominance in Glasgow and west-central Scotland: they don’t count the votes for Labour in these constituencies, they just weigh them; they pin a red rosette on a donkey and it’s elected. That sort of thing. The other parties may glower and moan and sneer, but Labour candidates always win, often without having to do very much.

Now some think that things may be changing, that, though Labour retains its grip on local government, especially in Glasgow, its majorities are falling, and in recent elections the SNP has been making inroads. It may hope that this trend will continue, especially with Nicola Sturgeon giving a Glaswegian tone to a party that has for most of its history spoken with a variety of East Coast and North-east accents. Moreover, Glasgow voted Yes in the referendum. Nevertheless it would be a bold punter who had a hefty bet on the SNP taking many of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats next May.

After all, we’ll be voting then for the next government of the United Kingdom and this will concentrate the mind. It usually does. The SNP is of marginal relevance in a UK general election. It does better in Holyrood elections because it can form the Scottish Government. This is obvious to most people, and they vote accordingly.

But now there is a new kid on the block, spouting promises to the electorate and threats to Labour. This is Ukip, of course, buoyed by winning a by-election in England, following its successful European election. Even here in Scotland where it was supposed to be irrelevant, it got 10 per cent of the vote then, and David Coburn became one of Scotland’s six MEPs. Now he says that Ukip will be targeting up to a dozen traditionally safe Labour seats in “rust-belt” areas where the old heavy industries have disappeared and jobs have been lost.

Labour, Mr Coburn says, has run these seats like “feudal lords”. “People have just been abandoned or given sops to keep them happy. They are places where Labour calls the tune with a wee Labour mafia in little Soviets, and seats are handed down from father to son.” Mafia, Soviets, Feudalism – crikey!

Now, as was argued in our leading article yesterday, while Ukip may do better in Scotland than many suppose, its hopes are unlikely to be realised, because we have the SNP to articulate anti-Westminster grievances. Nevertheless the political weather is so murky some may think “anything goes”.

So it’s perhaps more to the point to ask whether Glasgow and west-central Scotland Labour really deserves to be clobbered and whether Labour has indeed let down its natural supporters.

The second question is the more easily answered. Whatever their other failings, the Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 hugely increased welfare spending and spending on education and the NHS, things that matter to everyone, but especially to Labour voters. As chancellor, Gordon Brown introduced tax credits to benefit lower-income families and raised both child benefits and retirement pensions in real terms. His Tory opponents accused him of creating a client state in which more and more people depended for an increasing part of their income on public subsidy. Inasmuch as there was any truth in this charge, it’s incompatible with the accusation Labour has neglected the people who regularly vote for it.

Of course, the old heavy industries, with their high requirement for labour, have disappeared. This is not peculiar to Scotland or the north of England. It’s the common experience of the western world. The term “rust belt” originated in the United States. It has been applied to the Ruhr in Germany and old industrial regions of northern France and Belgium. In the early years of de-industrialisation, attempts were made by both Labour and Conservative governments to implant new industries. They mostly failed. Where they succeeded, they did so because automation replaced workers. Since then we may have learned that while assistance with public money is often useful, productive jobs are created by businesses, not governments. Nevertheless Labour has sponsored numerous regeneration projects in Glasgow and Lanarkshire; some have succeeded.

Labour controls Glasgow and the level of achievement in the city’s schools is well below the Scottish average. But I doubt if the local party can be held responsible. Educational policy is determined at Holyrood, and local authorities’ responsibility anywhere is now little more than nominal. The SNP government has been no more successful in improving the performance of Scottish schools than the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.

In any state or region where one party has been scarcely challenged and in power for a long time there will be some instances of nepotism, jobs for the boys and, commonly, a degree of low-level corruption. This is a universal rule, and no doubt it applies in some degree to Labour in its Scottish heartlands. Yet the remarkable thing is how little of all this there has been. Scottish Labour may be complacent, but it is neither criminal nor especially corrupt, as parties elsewhere which have enjoyed long periods of dominance often are. Compared with Fianna Fail in the Republic of Ireland, it’s pure as new-fallen snow.

If Ukip’s challenge disturbs Labour’s complacency, that’s a good thing. But it won’t do more than that. Ukip is good only at making a noise. Its policies are incoherent, and even when they have some appeal elsewhere are irrelevant to Scotland and especially to “rust-belt” Scotland where the level of immigration is not an issue. Ukip offers no hope; it appeals only to the aggrieved and resentful.

In any case, Labour retains one card that trumps any that others may play: it’s the only alternative UK government. If you want rid of the Tories, vote Labour. A vote for Ukip – like a vote for the SNP at a Westminster election – is a vote wasted. Expect that message to be proclaimed loud and often.