Can you out-Ukip Ukip? Depending on which day of the week it is, both mainstream political parties think you can and you can’t. Last week Ed Miliband said you couldn’t and that he wouldn’t, arguing that it was about time someone levelled with Nigel Farage’s party. Yesterday Yvette Cooper announced tough immigration measures that some in her party thought suggested Labour was trying to chase Ukip. The Tories have the same struggle.
One of the problems for both Tories and Labour is that it is unhealthy for them to allow Ukip to become in effect a think tank that sets policy for other parties by spooking their own MPs. This would be a problem in any policy area, but since Farage’s main solution to voter concern about immigration is to leave the European Union without renegotiation, Ukip as a think tank would lead the parties far away from their own instincts. It is also damaging for the parties because voters may see tougher immigration policies and think that therefore everyone agrees with Ukip, and therefore that Ukip are right. In that situation, why vote for Ukip-lite? This is a particularly acute problem for Labour given it was in government when everyone got the predictions for A8 immigration so wrong. Voters may listen to Yvette Cooper and think that Ukip is right, but conclude that Labour would not be able to deliver what it is promising. They may also think that the party is arguing against its own instincts.
Should the parties even bother to respond to Ukip on immigration then? One of the frustrations that many voters have with politicians today is that they are insincere and do not say what they believe. Surely a better approach to policy is to pursue what you as a party think is right, whether that be a tougher immigration policy or a more liberal approach. Perhaps both parties need to think a little longer before they make announcements and set targets. The main effect of a poorly-thought-through target that attracted some good headlines to begin with is to make voters even more frustrated with politicians when that target then fails. The Conservative net migration target is a perfect example of that.
Chaos over policy isn’t just a Tory and Labour thing, though. This morning Ukip is denying that it has a policy of forcibly repatriating people if Britain leaves the EU after Mark Reckless’ remarks at a hustings, arguing that the party’s candidate was misunderstood.
The need for sincerity extends far beyond the immigration debate, though. Labour and the Tories cannot sustain their current command and control approach to their MPs whereby everyone says one thing but thinks another. Even very loyal MPs know that their constituents don’t like them holding back from saying what they think, but they then still think that to get ahead, they must continue to behave. If the parties want to try to chase Ukip, they don’t necessarily need to think about what they say about immigration but the way they say things in general. On-message is off-putting these days, but ending that tradition seems even harder than toughening up on immigration policy.