Phil Hearse examines what’s behind the continuing rise of UKIP
The defection of Clacton MP Douglas Carswell from the Tories gives the UK Independence Party (UKIP) the near certainty of getting their first MP. Opinion polls published on August 30 showed Carswell 44% clear of the Tories in the byelection campaign in Clacton caused by his defection. His defection has been reinforced by the stand-down decision of Chris Kelly, Tory MP for Dudley South. This tops off an astonishing surge by UKIP in 2014, following their major success in the European elections.
In May’s European elections UKIP won 27.5 percent of the vote, becoming the first party other than the two main parties to win a national election in 100 years. In the council elections in England UKIP won 163 seats (up 161), with about 17 percent of the national vote. UKIP’s vote damaged both Tories and Labour. While they cost the Tories control of several councils, they also polled well in some Labour territory, like Thurrock and Rotherham.
UKIP’s breakthrough has to be seen as part of a wider process in British politics, and not just down to the actions of Farage and UKIP, although they are the cutting edge of this process. UKIP as a realistic challenger for Westminster seats, with even the possibility of holding the balance of power at the 2015 election, is the culmination of a prolonged campaign waged by the Tory right-wing, key sections of the media like the Mail and the Telegraph, former Tories in smaller right-wing parties and right-wing TV commentators to make another decisive shift in British politics to the right. Not content with the anti-working class reforms of the Thatcher-era such as privatisation, the anti-union laws and the sell-off of council houses, the über-Thatcherites want to dump Cameron and the coalition government, deepen the counter-revolution of the Thatcher years and even further weaken the forces of the labour movement and social progress, further dismantling the welfare state and victimising immigrants.
So in reality the decisive move to force the Conservatives even further to the right has come in the form of a party outside the mainstream three party system. But UKIP pulling off this as the vanguard of the whole of the hard right in British politics has been made possible by a significant shift in the party’s profile and politics in the last five years.
A fake people’s crusade
In the run-up to the European elections, UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed to be leading a ‘people’s crusade’ against the ‘establishment’, and over immigration was prepared to attack ‘big business’. But this is a fake and demagogic ‘crusade’. Farage undertook this turn in order to deepen and consolidate his party’s base outside its long-term base in the middle class – into sections of the working class itself. This demagogic trick, playing on people’s hostility to corrupt mainstream politics and claiming to side with the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people, is typical of the new breed of right-wing wing ‘populist’ parties in Europe like the French Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party. It is a trick with some nasty historical precedents in pre-war Germany and Italy. In each case closer analysis reveals that these parties ultimately defend the interests of the middle class and big business.
A typical demagogic trick is to claim that low-paid immigrant workers are being used to undermine the wages of British workers. This actually happens, in some cases, to be true. But the solution is of course to rigorously police the national minimum wage, indeed impose a national living wage for all workers. UKIP would never support such a policy, which would hit the profits of the business people who are its rock-solid support.
Farage and his predecessor Lord Pearson has been able to extend support for UKIP outside of its southern and middle class bastions because of the existence of sections of the population who are both utterly disillusioned with the mainstream politics and amenable to mobilisation around reactionary, right-wing themes. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have documented this convincingly in their book Revolt on the Right. The first base of UKIP was in right wing Tory bastions in the South East. Thus it is no surprise to see UKIP doing well on the London/Essex and London/Hertfordshire border. This was the only part of the country that swung towards the Tories in the 2001 general election, whereas everywhere else the swing was to Labour (or the nationalists in Scotland and Wales). But more explaining has to be done when you look at solidly working class areas where UKIP is doing well, for example Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries, Rotherham in South Yorkshire, Southampton on the south coast and Barking in East London.
These are all places which have suffered long-term economic decline and where there are many thousands of older white workers who have suffered long-term unemployment. Some of these areas have not recovered or have only partially recovered from the recession of the Thatcher years that saw whole industries collapse. Many seaside resorts like Great Yarmouth and Clacton are centres of white working class poverty, a result of the long-term decline of British seaside holidaymaking and of the fishing industry. These are areas where the labour movement has been greatly weakened or has never been strong. It reflects the strong geographical divides in poverty in the UK, and of course the accelerating wealth divide along class lines: as a recent report has revealed, the poorest regions in Britain are the poorest regions in Northern Europe.
Ford and Goodwin show that the typical working class UKIP supporter is white, male and over 55 years of age. From their original white middle class base, UKIP reaches out into an older white working class base and – of course – is has the potential to reach out further from there.
The question is why UKIP has been able to mobilise this white working class base. The basic answer is simple: 1) In the last 5 years UKIP has significantly modified its political message, reversing the relative priorities of its anti-EU and anti-immigrant messages. Surveys show it is the anti-immigrant profile of UKIP that is now more likely to win support than its anti-EU stance. Indeed a YouGov survey showed that only 22% of UKIP voters rate Europe as a key issue facing ordinary people, as against 40% who think that immigration is. This political turn was pioneered in 2010 by previous UKIP leader Lord Pearson, with the aim of reaching into racist sections of the working class. 2) There are huge reservoirs of racism and hostility to immigrants embedded in every social class in Britain, including of course the working class, particularly among older people. UKIP has been able to construct a narrative of British decline which welds together the EU and multiculturalism, racist hostility to immigrants and Islamophobia, as well as tacit gross sexism and homophobia. It has been assisted in this by the vile right wing discourse in the mass media, particularly the right wing daily papers. Twenty one percent of Daily Express readers intend to vote UKIP, 20% of Mail readers, 17% of Sun readers and – here’s the giveaway – 17% of Telegraph readers. Other significant figures are the 21% of men over 60 who are likely to vote UKIP and 16% of people whose household income is less than £20,000pa.
Contradictions of Multiculturalism
Can this account of how UKIP has built its support really be true? That the key to UKIP’s growth has been its ability to identify the most easily mobilisable base for anti-immigrant racism? Surely multiculturalism is in the ascendant vis-à-vis racism and this has been going on for several decades?
Sunny Hundal writing in The Guardian (22/4/13) says:
“It’s official: 45 years after Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech – the fearmongers have lost the war, while those who think Britain is stronger with a multiracial and multicultural identity have won.
“Don’t believe me? The former Tory chairman Lord Ashcroft did arepresentative survey of British ethnic minority voters last week, and found that 90% think we have become a multicultural country, and a similar proportion say this is a good thing. A survey found that 90% of all Britons also agreed Britain had become a multicultural country, and 70% were in favour of this development… Multiculturalism has become shorthand for a multiracial and multi-ethnic Britain at ease with its modern identity. right-wing criticisms are therefore seen merely as an attack on modern Britain. …It’s time right-wingers accepted that the apocalyptic future imagined by Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and the Daily Mail never materialised. The British public has seen through the fearmongering and shrugged it aside.” (Multiculturalism has won, let’s move on)
It would be nice to believe this account is true, and there is a significant amount of truth in it, but it leaves out many countervailing factors. Support for multiculturalism peaks when people are watching those nice sports people like Mo Farah winning gold medals for Britain and Amir Khan being a boxing world-beater. When it come to the 2011 riots the support for multiculturalism among white people was less secure. In particular it is quite possible to find people who warm to our star black, Asian and mixed race athletes, but are utterly Islamophobic. The 9/11 attacks in the United States were a complete disaster for multiculturalism in Britain and elsewhere. Islamophobia is the cutting edge of racism in Britain and most of Europe today.
But even if we take Sunny Handal’s case as being basically true, and we accept that, like homophobia, racism has much declined among the young and particularly in the inner-city multicultural heartlands, that doesn’t of course exclude that there are huge reservoirs of racism that can be mobilised by the right. And they don’t intend to move on, not at all.
The age groups where support for UKIP is highest are of course the very ones most targeted by rabid right wing media like the Daily Mail, the Express and the Telegraph. The amount of right-wing poison pumped out by these instruments of the Tory hard-right is shocking – a daily diet of vitriolic anti-immigrant racism.
The right wing offensive
Everyone knows that a significant section of the Conservative Party sees David Cameron as a wimp who is soft on Europe and fatally soft on liberal social issues like gay marriage. Matthew Parris writing in the Times foresees a split in the Tory party and a new UKIP-Tory party emerging:
“Ukip and the Tory irreconcilables are perfectly relaxed about the possibility that Mr Cameron could lose the next election; they do not want the EU referendum that would follow his victory. They want the present Tory leadership to stumble and fall, and, from the internal battle that would follow, they see the emergence of a new kind of party led by a new kind of leader from the anti-European right.” (Times, 30 April)
Tim Stanley commenting in the Telegraph rejects this:
“Very, very few of them [Tory MPs] will join Carswell in going over to the purple side. But they do hope that the threat Ukip poses to a Tory victory in 2015 will persuade Cameron to move to the Right – something he has already started to do on benefits, immigration and Europe. They distrust Cameron, even dislike him. But, for the moment, appreciate that they are stuck with him. It’s precisely because they have such a low opinion of Dave’s principles that they think he might be nudged in their direction. No, they don’t want to lose the 2015 election. But neither do they want it to validate a centrist, wet strategy that they think has not served the party or country well.” (Telegraph, 30 August).
Probably Stanley’s account is more realistic. In any case the question to be answered is what exactly motivates the Conservative right. Why this rabid and vicious über-Thatcherism and hostility to the EU?
In the first place, nationalism is absolutely central to traditional Tory ideology. That’s why the endless movie glorification of the Second World War, of Winston Churchill and the monarchy – and that’s why the right-wing attempt to rewrite the history of the First World War as a just war that was necessary for Britain to fight. The traditional mode of political domination exercised by the Conservative Party when in government, and demanded of Labour when it has been in power, is a form of British exceptionalism, glorifying the unique role of British capitalism, itself based on the traditions of Empire. The strains in the Tory ranks over the EU reflect of course that this form of British nationalism comes into conflict with the objective interests of the British ruling class and big business, which are obviously to stay in the European Union, have a more flexible attitude to movements of immigrant workers and have a tolerant attitude to multiculturalism and social liberalism.
But secondly this traditionalist nationalism in the Tory right has blended with extreme neoliberalism, and its continual demand that Britain dismantles the remaining parts of the welfare state. This is evident in the new levy of über-Thatcherites who came into the Commons in 20120. Five of them, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, have published a book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, which is dripping with vicious right-wing class hatred and a demand to finally end the post-war political settlement which gave workers a welfare state and employment rights. Among its propositions are the idea that: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
The Guardian interviewed Dominic Raab, whose key argument was for employment law to be radically altered to enable workers to be easily sacked, thus imposing a much harsher work regime on workers already suffering from stagnant pay, zero hours contracts and harshly restrictive trade union laws. And of course the British in fact work the longest hours in Europe.
This kind of vehement class hatred permeates the Tory right and is grist to the mill of UKIP. The objective role of UKIP at this stage is to push the whole political discourse nationally to the right, especially by pushing the Conservative party to the right. At a later stage – maybe – UKIP can link up with the Tory right, either by forming a new party together with Tory right wingers, or by building its own significant parliamentary representation in the hope of the government being formed by coalition with the Tories, adopting much of UKIP’s programme. However there remain contradictions in the hard right, because the Britannia Unchained team and those who think like them will go along with the Eurosceptic right in vicious class warfare, but are much less keen on the racist and homophobic dimension of much of the Tory right and of course UKIP.
What their policies tell us
UKIP has a problem with policies. If you win support on just immigration and racism, some of your supporters might disagree if you explain more detailed policies. Insofar as it has put forward its own policies, its bias towards middle class businesspeople is obvious. It espouses plenty of policies that are simply and obviously not in the interests of the ordinary people it claims to represent. These include:
- Merge income tax and national insurance into a flat rate 31% income tax at the same rate for all, irrespective of income. This is a notoriously reactionary proposition that will shift the burden of tax payments away from the rich and well of middle classes towards the low paid and ordinary workers.
- Cut state spending and sack two million public sector workers, in the hope that these lost jobs will be picked up by the private sector.
- Double the defence equipment budget and build more nuclear power stations. Build four new nuclear submarines with American missiles. Increase defence spending by 40%.
- Build three more aircraft carriers and order 50 more Lightning jets.
- Double the number of prison places and build more prisons.
- Franchise out key services from hospitals and GP surgeries to companies and charities.
- Support coal-powered fuel and oppose wind farms.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this programme is aimed at a major further shift of wealth and power to the rich, and the middle class small business people where UKIP has a particular base. In fact it is a programme for at least a very nasty and extremely right wing regime, committed to a huge extension of militarism (despite the demagogy against unnecessary wars like Iraq and Afghanistan), locking up tens of thousands in new prisons, sacking hundreds of thousands of public sectors workers, impoverishing those on benefits and – crucially –worsening employment rights to the benefit of big business and UKIP’s self-employed, small business owners base.
The voting record of UKIP in the European Parliament shows its right-wing pro-business profile: it voted against more MEPs having to record meetings with business lobbyists, against greater transparency in drug testing for big pharmaceutical companies and – amazingly – against a clamp down on the brutal ivory trade which is slaughtering thousands of elephants a year.
Two things have to be said about the party’s policies though. UKIP is quite capable of major demagogic shifts in policy – we will probably see them at its upcoming conference, with a major effort to seem to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, Nigel Farage’s basic line is “These are my policies, but if you don’t like them, I have others.” The key things that won’t change are Europe and immigration.
Second, UKIP is not going to form the government any time soon, although a Tory-UKIP government is a possibility – but that won’t implement the whole UKIP manifesto. The Conservative Party is the historic political instrument of the British capitalist class and indeed one of the most successful political parties in history. Nothing lasts forever, but the most intelligent sections of ruling class opinion are not going to give this instrument up, or see it destroyed, without a fight. A realignment on the hard right of British politics would destabilise the whole system with unpredictable results. The problem is that the genie is out of the bottle and into mass politics and cannot now be easily controlled.
Why does the radicalisation go to the right?
UKIP is succeeding where the British National Party failed, because despite the best (and unconvincing) efforts of Nick Griffin to distance the BNP from the taint of fascism, nobody in fact believed him. Because of the Second World War, any hint of association with fascism is electoral death. By contrast UKIP, while openly appealing to former BNP supporters, paints itself as the respectable face of racism and the hard right. But the question remains why the radicalisation goes to the right and not the left – why there is nothing remotely as influential (or potentially so) as UKIP from the left of British politics. In fact the same question could be asked in most European countries.
There are two main answers. First, reactionary forces are cutting with the grain of the long-term shift to the right in politics and society. It is always going to be more difficult for the left, who are bitterly opposed by the mass media and traditional politicians. In Britain there is something near to a boycott on television and in the press of left-of-Labour organisations and radical campaigns. An obvious example is the scant publicity afforded to the three giant demonstrations against Israel’s attack on Gaza. Can you imagine a media boycott or semi-boycott if 150,000 had demonstrated in favour of Israel? Or if there had been three huge demonstrations in four weeks by the supporters of the Countryside Alliance? By contrast UKIP leader Farage is rarely off the TV screens and was given literally millions of pounds worth of free publicity before the European elections.
This situation has been caused in part by the pathetic inability of the traditional mass social democratic parties to put up anything by way of resistance to the central reactionary neoliberal ideas about the economy, about immigration, about crime, about civil liberties, about trade union rights, about just about anything. Of course this is glaring in Britain, where the Blair-Brown government pursued unswerving neoliberal policies. Today Ed Miliband sounds limp and pathetic when he promises absolutely nothing from an incoming Labour government, because “we don’t know what the tax take will be”. Serious opposition to Tory cuts and austerity can’t be generated by people who intend to continue it. On the basis of the evidence so far, the attempts to ‘reclaim’ Labour for the left promoted by Unite leader Len McCluskey seem to have little purchase.
Finally, it is obvious that the absence – so far – of a powerful and united party to the left of Labour that could make a consistent mass impact is a grave weakness. The persistent division into multiple small parties, sects, churches and cults is disabling. It is this weakness that Left Unity is trying to address.
This article first appeared on Left Unity.