If the polls are to be believed, the elections to the European Parliament are a two horse race between UKIP and Labour. In their election manifesto, UKIP outline such precise and costed polices as "Abolish non-essential and politically-correct jobs and red tape" and "Oppose EU directives adding artificial and detrimental costs." These are not just sub-clauses buried away in small print, but major points outlined in a section titled 'Here are just some of the ways we will save your money' that sums up the whole document.
I don't bring these up for comic effect. UKP is very adept at turning their perceived weaknesses into triumphs. Like their American Tea Party cousins they have the tactical advantage of being able to make any policy announcement they like, certain to be tested by neither media nor office, and then when called on it claim that they are being picked on by an elitist conspiracy. I bring these up instead to show that a year out from a General Election an insurgency campaign is quite capable of taking seats from all main parties based more on emotion than on fact, and feel secure enough with this strategy not to need a plan B.
The second biggest story of this election has been UKIP's expected breakthrough as a fourth force in British politics (as Kippers would see it.) I say the second biggest story, because for all the UKIP noise the Labour Party (a party of Government for thirty of the past seventy years, and one that has rarely fallen below 30% of the vote over the last century) has not been able to gain more traction against an unpopular coalition Government that only seems to be staying together for the sake of the kids.
Such is the tragedy of Ed Miliband, goes one school of thought, that even facing a Tory party that has only won one General Election in a quarter century, the most significant political feature of his tenure has been to allow a populist resurgence from the right not only able to steal votes from a Tory party mired in the swamp of minority-governing, but also from Labour's core vote of the economically insecure in the Midlands and the North.
The tragedy of this recession, and with Miliband's critique of the Government's response to it, will be to leave Conservatives with the impression that they have won the economic argument, rather than the merely party political, over this Parliament. The argument that they are keen to champion (although they never put it like this) is that a failure in very conservative ideas about surrendering our post-industrial economy to the forces of unproductive finance demands that we return once again to those same conservative ideas.
Milliband has surrendered his electoral advantage, and his biggest gambling chip, by conceding the Conservative premise that the recession was brought on by Labour being too socialist. The idea that all that talk about being intensely comfortable with people getting filthy rich was just a smokescreen to appear pro-business while being quietly Trotskyite by introducing a minimum wage and tax credits (a conservative idea, remember.)
Labour can banker-bash, but it looks only petulant - attacking a visible and obvious straw man (the fact that bankers don't really care enough to need to fight back, comfortable that no politician can really do much more than say mean things about them, seems to be lost on neither them nor the electorate.) The cost of living crisis, in short, looked like an astute campaign when the economy was bottoming out, but was always a hostage to the growth figures; no matter how crude and irrelevant they may be in reality. But the campaign did nothing to try to move people's understanding about why there was a crisis in the first place.
Where is the Labour politician brave enough to come and say that while financial services may be a long-term positive, the financial services that we have had for the last quarter century have been a net drag on our economy? When seen through the narrow eyes of GDP growth the British economy will only recover its 2007 output this summer. This seven year slump is the longest, if not the deepest, in British economic history; and we barely have the tools to measure it.
Conservative arguments about economic organisation only work if we accept the premise that the way things are currently economically organised are the only way things can be economically organised. That innovation only happens in ideas, not in solid products any more. That government is always a drag on business, and stands outside the business cycle. That people want growth rather than jobs, or stable prices, or savings, or pensions. That while economic drag may occur, there is no such thing as natural drag. Conservative economic arguments make perfect sense, and will continue to win the public policy debate, only if we accept all of the above to be true.
UKIP and their media defenders (who only have to defend what they say, as they haven't yet had to defend anything that they actually do) will interpret any Labour tactical U-Turn on what they consider to be their issues, immigration and Europe, to be running scared. Better then to differentiate from both UKIP and the Tories.
One policy area where the political space seems to be entirely vacated, and would presumably be open for Labour to claim a stake, is on the environment. I have detailed before how extraordinarily difficult it can be getting political traction on the environment - the charge against environmentalists is that they either can't communicate the issues well enough to be worthy of attention, or go to the other extreme and become full-on alarmists. (And don't think that this is a problem with the Conservative press only. Try getting a climate change story past sceptic-in-chief Andrew Neil, or receive anything less than po-faced 'balance' on Newsnight in the BBC.)
Just as important as rebutting the UKIP idea that Britain is in some way full up, is rebutting the idea that the Tories recycle and Labour fail to challenge that fuel poverty is the result of misfiring Green Levies. As a recent Parliamentary report noted, the UK energy sector is subsidised by the taxpayer at £12bn a year, the vast majority going to fossil fuels, and just as important the relatively large amounts that go to supporting green technologies in the last few years are a function of intensive technology development to 'hot house' a nascent industry over a short period - just as fossil fuel subsidies benefited those industries in the past. They are not intended to be permanent.
Furthermore, if UKIP had bothered to dig deeper into the figures they would have found out that while 9% of current energy bills go towards 'green tariffs', the whole point of these is to provide capital development of these industries so that renewables can reduce bills in the long run. UKIP's energy policy essentially comes down to this: renewables are not allowed to be exploited using the same economic rules that fossil fuels were; and suggesting they are needed for the future energy mix is just socialist propaganda designed to destroy capitalism. This is the self-styled party of common sense.
If UKIP is able to score the sort of successes on energy and fuel poverty as it has on immigration and the EU, where they set themselves up as an unfocused loci of dissent at the actions of 'elitist' green subsidies (subsidies that are often reserved for improving low-income housing stock rather than building windmills), this will represent another abrogation of Labour's duty to low income voters. Fuel poverty, the result of not standing up to the automobile and fossil fuel lobbies for decades, will suffer from scaredy-cat Labour's inability to stand up for principles, and instead blamed in UKIP style on whatever is new. Immigrants have just arrived and so must be cause and not a symptom of economic decline. Green energy is new and is therefore the cause and not a symptom of energy crisis.
The Green Party, who have 100% more MPs than UKIP, but because the media have decided that they are not in some way a hoot get 1% of their press, are making steady and necessary gains; but I can't see them getting to a position of power fast enough to do what the scientists (or as UKIP would have them capitalism-hating, windfarm-loving elitists) say is necessary in the timeframe required. I certainly support tactical voting of Green to send a message to Labour (and may do so myself) but in honesty we need the world's most successful, and totemic, progressive party to bear the standard on the environment in order to get this done. I would love Caroline Lucas to be Prime Minister of a Green Government, but the issue is too important not to place our hopes in a Labour Party getting its act together on the environment and doing what it does best: offering a credible, progressive alternative to the reactionary and cynical elements that infect British politics when times are tough and people are tired.