Celebration: Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Clacton

Len McCluskey has urged Labour to step up its attacks on the UK Independence party amid signs that an increasing number of union members are warming to its anti-EU, anti-immigration message.

The Unite general secretary said there was a feeling of “absolute abandonment” in many northern cities. “There is a divided Britain, a broken Britain,” he said. Ukip was picking up support in working-class areas – in Sunderland, for example – which had caught the Labour leadership by surprise.

“There has been a view in the Labour party for a while that, ‘let’s not worry about Ukip’,” he said. “They may take votes from Labour but they’ll take seats from the Conservatives. So there hasn’t been that full-frontal attack that we’ve been arguing for.”

Mr McCluskey said Labour needed to do more to deal with the concerns of these voters about Europe and immigration. He has previously called for the party to back a referendum on EU membership, although Unite would campaign for Britain to stay within the bloc.

“Is it true that migrant workers are undercutting pay? Yes. Who’s to blame for that? Not the migrant workers but the greedy bosses who are allowed to get away with it.”

Mr McCluskey welcomed the fact that Mr Miliband was talking more about immigration after years of leftwingers ignoring the issue for fear of looking racist or xenophobic. “These are genuine concerns and we need to deal with them.”

At the same time, he called for a more overt assault on Ukip. “Ed Miliband has got to be seen as being on people’s sides and he has got to talk to people in a way that they get the message,” he said. “That’s one of the advantages that people say [Ukip leader Nigel] Farage has.”

The unions will seek to emphasise Mr Farage’s background as a former Conservative supporter and one-time City worker, he said.

“Farage was a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher, is more Thatcherite than she was . . . We have to start exposing what Ukip’s policies are.”

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