Just days after the insurgent UK Independence Party made electoral history by winning two by-elections in a row, leading members of both the Conservative and Labour Parties have decried their respective parties as out of touch. Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy said that Labour was “culturally adrift”, whilst his Parliamentary colleague, Conservative David Davis said the electorate had rejected the establishment.
Both Parliamentarians referenced ex-shadow cabinet member Emily Thornberry, who resigned on the night of the by-election in Rochester and Strood after tweeting a picture of a house draped in English flags with a white van parked outside.
“Emily Thornberry’s tactless tweet characterised all too clearly what an ever growing part of the electorate see as the Westminster elite’s scornful view,” wrote Davis for the Mail on Sunday. Lammy was unsurprisingly more sympathetic towards his Labour colleague, writing “Amidst all the controversy, there is an irony to the last week’s events: Emily Thornberry is not a snob and she is not out of touch. Labour lost in Rochester and Strood not because of one tweet, but because of a growing perception that the party has lost touch with a large group of its own voters.”
But, whilst they both recognised that the electorate feel Westminister to be run by a distant elite, they diagnosed radically differing problems within their parties.
Davis sees the problem for the Conservatives as lying in the disenfranchisement of the electorate with all ruling parties, and the solution as more clarity on the main issues. “The Conservatives and Labour can no longer command even two-thirds of the electorate’s support.
“The sense of rejection of the establishment was put best by the victim of Emily Thornberry’s tweet when he said, ‘I’ve not voted and I’m not going to. No matter who you have in, it doesn’t matter.’
“This sense of disenfranchisement hurts all of us, but as the party in power it hurts us most of all,” he said, adding: “After Tony Blair stood down in 2007 there was a public desire for clarity, coherence and principle after years of spin. We were unable to harness it in 2010. I believe it is not too late to tap into that mood now.”
Suggesting that his party was “free of the shackles of the Coalition” in the run up to the election, he called on the Conservatives to “address the issues of Europe, immigration, welfare and taxation with more clarity than has been the case in the last four years.” Failure to do so, he warned, would result in another electoral defeat.
Meanwhile, for Lammy, Labour’s problems lie in the party’s inability to engage on the subject of immigration. Recognising that the electorate is abandoning Labour in favour of Ukip, thanks in part to the perception that “the Labour Party feels culturally adrift not just from large parts of Britain, but from its own traditional working class base.
“A sense of mutual disdain between the mainstream parties and working class England is driving voters away from politics, or towards so-called ‘anti-politics’ parties such as Ukip,” he said. “people are still voting for [Ukip] in droves. We have to start asking why.
“The Labour discomfort hinges on immigration. By and large, modern Labour politicians come from liberal, professional backgrounds. They have benefitted from globalisation – they mix in social circles with people who work in multi-national firms, enjoy foreign travel and find diversity enriching.
“Much of Labour’s traditional electoral base does not feel this way. Globalisation may have brought people slightly cheaper consumer goods, but it has also put pressure on wages and made jobs feel insecure.”
Yet, whilst recognising that many working class people feel adversely impacted by immigration, Lammy argues that the solution is not in curbing immigration, or in “closing the door on talented people coming to this country,” as he puts it, but in “closing the cultural gap between Labour and significant sections of the electorate, whilst doing more to make sure globalisation benefits everyone.”
For Lammy, closing that gap involves “reconnecting, enthusiastically and unashamedly with our country’s patriotism,” including encouraging newcomers to Britain to engage in patriotism for their newly adopted country.
“Making globalisation work for people is harder but just as important,” he says. “On this point Labour has been hitting some of the right notes, whether that is on tax avoidance, the living wage or promoting high quality apprenticeships.”
And Lammy also wants an end to people “simply storing their money in London [property], rather than buying a home to live in or even rent out.”
Finally, he agreed that benefits ought to pay into the system before they can access welfare. “our welfare system was conceived as an insurance system. You pay in first before you are able to take out. It is right to apply that principle to housing lists and certain benefits, as all parties now agree we should.”
Commenting on his party’s success just hours before the Rochester by-election results were announced, Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the press “a win for Reckless tonight, here, will change British politics in ways that I can’t necessarily think through now. It throws the whole thing up in the air […] Frankly if Ukip win in Rochester, next year’s general election is completely impossible to call.”