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.