Inevitably, following Ukip’s strong showing in the English county council elections, the media is packed with helpful advice for David Cameron. How should he respond to the emergence – however transitory it might turn out to be – of four-party politics?
And the usual solutions are trotted out. Except they don’t seem to range further than getting tougher on immigration and bringing forward Cameron’s much-heralded in/out referendum on the EU. In other words, take on Farage on the two issues where he’s polling strongest.
The risks for the Tories are high. As Philip Collins, Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, says in today’s Times, Cameron can only win a majority in 2015 if he takes votes from the left as well as the right. So dancing to Farage’s tune could well end his hopes of being more than a one-term Prime Minister.
The Tories would be far better advised to attack Ukip where it’s weakest: everything else apart from immigration and Europe. Its tax and spending plans are, to put it generously, insane. And as far as anyone can tell, it has no plans for the NHS or schools except to talk fondly of the halcyon days of the 1950s.
It’s a trap that Scottish Labour has fallen into more than once in its history. The USP of Ukip’s Caledonian twin, the SNP, is “independence” (and after its referendum defeat next year that USP will be subtly transformed into “more devolution”). It is first and foremost a political vehicle for achieving constitutional change, not for running services like health, education, etc.
So why do we continually imagine we can successfully fight them on the constitutional battleground? An over-used phrase in Labour circles, but one which is so apposite it has never been bettered, is “we can’t out-nat the Nats”. And we can’t. However far some want to extend devolution, it will never be enough for the nationalists. After every increase in powers they will always, always respond by saying: we want more.
As flawed as Salmond’s plans for “independence” are (and we have no choice but to confront those arguments and demolish them in the next 18 months), we’re playing away from home every time we debate constitutional issues. This shouldn’t be so. We are the party that delivered Home Rule against the SNP’s expectations and indifference.
Nevertheless, it is so, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Fighting the SNP on the constitution, beyond our campaign against “independence”, carries the same risk of exposing our internal divisions as that posed to Cameron, should he decide to fight Ukip on Farage’s terms.
So let’s start playing more home games. The SNP are fundamentally weak when it comes to issues voters actually care about. On schools, universities, the health service, public transport, they’re on the defensive, mainly because these are issues with which they engage only because they must in order to advance their constitutional ambitions.
The electoral advantage for us lies in the fact that people actually do care about these issues far more than they care about the obscure and dry arguments about sovereignty.
Whenever we try to move the argument into these areas, the nats react by railing against the Union, just as Farage will divert any debate on, say, tax into a diatribe against the EU. Our difficulty – and it’s echoed by the plight facing the Conservatives in the rest of the country, is that the media – here and in England – much prefer to talk about the UK and the EU and whether we’re in or out. School standards and NHS targets are just so dull in comparison…
Nevertheless, those are the battlegrounds on which we can win and that is where we will win if we’re clever and determined enough.
I hope Scottish Labour will follow that advice. And I hope Cameron doesn’t.
Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South and is a Shadow Environment Minister. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.