Andrew Whitaker: Labour should take on Ukip

ED MILIBAND has faced one of the most testing weeks of his four-year tenure as Labour leader, after narrowly avoiding what would have been a catastrophic defeat to Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election.

Ed Miliband seems to be offering a softened version of Ukips anti-immigrant platform. Picture: Jane Barlow

Mr Farage’s anti-EU party has openly sought to use hostility to immigration among sections of the white working-class electorate to dent Labour’s appeal in such constituencies. The apparent success of that strategy has ramped up the pressure on Mr Miliband, who was this week told by Tony Blair’s former welfare reform minister Frank Field that the party’s supposed failure to acknowledge deep-seated concerns over immigration could lead to a 1980s-style meltdown for Labour and years in the political wilderness.

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Mr Miliband felt the need to respond to Ukip’s strong showing last week, when Mr Farage’s party also took its first Westminster seat from the Tories in the Clacton by-election, with a pledge to crack down on immigration with tough new rules restricting the right of migrants to the UK’s welfare state.

However, by simply offering a softened version of Ukip’s anti-immigrant platform, Mr Miliband is at real risk of being forced to fight Mr Farage and the Tories on their own terrain of right-wing populism.

Mr Miliband would be far better advised to call out Ukip and take the fight to them now, argue some figures within the party, such as the back-bench Labour MP John Mann.

Ukip has made it clear it will target solidly Labour seats north and south of the Border, which is why Mr Miliband needs to be prepared to fight the party bare-knuckled and to challenge Mr Farage over his stance on issues such as the living wage, a freeze on household energy bills and a crackdown on zero hour contracts – all of which the Eurosceptics are likely to be found wanting on.

Why, for example, has Mr Milband been slow to point out that Ukip has nothing to say on squeezed living standards, job creation, employment rights and the cost of living – other than to blame the various crises on the EU and immigrants?

John Park – a former Labour MSP who now serves as assistant general secretary of the UK’s steelworkers’ union Community – this week said Ukip is “not for working people” and is a party that’s “to the right of the Tories and is close to the BNP” on some issues.

Mr Miliband faces a choice of whether to allow Ukip to eat into Labour’s vote in what is certain to be an extremely close fight with the Tories in next year’s election, or to take a lead from Labour supporters such as Mr Park and hit back at Mr Farage, who so far has been allowed to escape any real scrutiny.