Labour MPs must take voters’ concerns on immigration and Brexit seriously or risk losing their seats to the UK Independence Party, former shadow minister Dan Jarvis has warned.
Mr Jarvis, who has been tipped as a potential future leader for the party, told The Times that branding voters ‘racists’ for voicing concerns on immigration, and failing to accept the results of last June’s referendum on EU membership was a “toxic” combination that would act as “rocket fuel” for UKIP.
“There are very few Labour MPs, if any, who would say that they are in what’s traditionally been referred to as safe seats. I’m not sure such a thing exists any more,” he said.
“It is clear to me that the Ukip fox is in the Labour henhouse and we have got to make a decision about what we want to do about that fox.”
UKIP’s newly elected leader, Paul Nuttall, has vowed that his party will “replace the Labour Party in the next five years and become the patriotic party of the working people”.
Analysis by the House of Commons library has revealed 13 Labour seats that would be lost, mostly to the Conservatives, if just one in 50 Labour voters switched to UKIP at the next election.
Should one in 16 Labour voters make the switch, a further 19 seats would be lost, including four which would be won by UKIP: Lord Mandelson’s former seat of Hartlepool; Heywood and Middleton; South Thanet; and Thurrock.
Jarvis said the “sobering” figures showed the perilous state his party was in.
He said the impression given by some in the party that Labour “looks down on people” with concerns about immigration is “toxic in politics”, adding: “It is not racist to express concerns about immigration.”
And he called on his party to adopt a Conservative-style capping target on immigration figures, saying: “If you accept the premise of targets you have to set one. I think it would be helpful to us if we accepted that basic principle.”
However, Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott has called on the party to hold its nerve on immigration, insisting that adopting a “UKIP-lite” platform would not deliver electoral victory.
Speaking to The Guardian, Abbott conceded that many leave voters wanted to see immigration rates fall, but rejected calls from Labour colleagues for limits on immigration.
“It is absolutely fair to say that on doorsteps colleagues are finding people complaining about immigration, but it is simply not the case that immigration has driven down wages, or that immigration has created the insecurity or instability they perceive,” she said.
Instead, the answer for Abbott lies in countering right-wing opposition to unfettered immigration. “[P]articularly in the wake of Trump, the Labour party has to offer resistance to a general rightward trend on race and immigration because I think it could be a downward spiral. We have to speak up for people.
“We have to acknowledge how frightened some people are about this type of debate on immigration, because they do not know where it ends,” she said.
This meant accepting that free movement of people from Europe was the price to be paid for access to the single market, Abbott insisted.
“You cannot have access to the single market or be part of the single market without freedom of movement. It’s time people started acknowledging that,” she said.
“Those of us who are arguing for the least harmful Brexit have to be clear to people that there is no deal to be done on freedom of movement, and to imperil our economic interests as a country because of anti-immigrant feeling would scarcely be responsible.”
However, she denied that the party was in favour of reversing or ignoring the results of the EU referendum, suggesting that the British people would change their minds over time anyhow.
“The party is against just reversing the referendum, that would be profoundly undemocratic,” she said.
“I think we are looking at a situation that is moving all the time, and bit by bit people are going to understand they were lied to, the £350m on the NHS and being told you can keep access to the single market but dump free movement.
“I think there’s a little bit of Bregret, and because the Tories don’t have a plan, because their approach is so chaotic, I think we’ll see more Bregret as time goes on.”