Second Thoughts on UKIP
(A paper presented 5th July 2014).
The popularist right across Europe is such a motley collection that it is tempting to suggest that they do not constitute a single phenomenon. But they seem to occupy a similar space in the societies in which they operate. They are a response to neo-liberal economic policy and the unmitigated effects of globalised capital, but a reactionary one. At least in part, they operate in a context where labour movements and the social democratic parties based on them have been weakened and do not offer workers much defence against neo-liberal policies. UKIP is perhaps one of the more mainstream of these groups, its origins and many of its ideas being rooted in the right wing of the Conservative Party. It has been careful to steer clear of association with fascist parties. It refuses to be in the same European Parliamentary group as the Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party or the Italian Northern League. It restricts its racism to opposing immigration with some occasional but unsystematic anti-Muslim racism.
Some of you may have read an article that I wrote about UKIP in Solidarity a few weeks before the European elections in May. In that article I argued that UKIP were Zombie Thatcherites and unlikely to take many votes from Labour and that while a section of the working class votes for UKIP, these are not people who were previously class conscious but a recycled section of the Conservatives’ electoral base from the 1980s.
However, I think some of this argument needs to be re-appraised in the light of the May election results, not so much UKIP topping the poll in the European elections, but the outcome of the local elections. Later, I will look at what has happened in Rotherham, where UKIP won the popular vote in the council election. This shows the potential for a right-wing popularist party to become a substantial force in British politics if the labour movement is not rebuilt.
But I will start by looking at the picture up to the 2014 elections. Politically, UKIP is a particularly virulent reduction of 1980s Conservatism to its most popularist elements and up until now has mobilised an electoral base that harks back to that. Its policies beyond its anti-Europeanism and – probably more importantly – anti-immigration racism are from the new right blending social conservatism in policies such as tough law and order and opposition to gay marriage [although recently Farage has equivocated on this , to neoliberal economic policy in the form of a flat rate of income tax that would redistribute wealth to the rich. Other policies are vague, for example they promise to preserve public services without any policy for funding them. Thus, it is on the basis of opposing the EU and opposing immigration that UKIP have established their support.
It is certainly not the case, as Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have argued in their recent book Revolt on the Right, that “UKIP’s revolt is a working class phenomena”, at least that has not been the defining characteristic of UKIP up to now. This has also been a popular refrain for many in the Labour Party who think that it should move to the right. Particularly the blue labour followers of Maurice Glasman think that Labour should blend popularist nationalist and anti immigration rhetoric with some redistributive policy to create a centre-left popularism. This argument is both unprincipled and electorally illiterate. The kind of anti-immigrant racism shown by UKIP supporters is part of a more general package of right wing views, and they would not be convinced by a blue labour approach.
Indeed, the origins of UKIP are on the mainstream right of British politics. Precisely, they lie in the Bruges Group, formed in 1988 by anti-federalists, largely drawn from the Conservative Party. The issue of anti-federalism became an acute one in the Conservative Party after the defenestration of Thatcher at the end of 1990. While some in the Bruges Group focused on a broader agenda of taking Thatcher’s policies forward rather than the consolidation pursued by John Major, others thought the Maastricht Treaty posed an immediate threat and sought an electoral vehicle to oppose it. Thus the Anti-Federalist League was born. This soon split from the Bruges Group, with the intention of standing candidates in the 1992 election. It soon became UKIP, although it was eclipsed in the 1997 general election by James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.
The Referendum Party saw itself as an external faction of the Conservatives and sought to put pressure on them to take a more anti-European position. Many in UKIP saw their role in a similar way. However, others saw it as a party in itself, although one that had a narrowly defined policy.
Although UKIP built up support in European elections, winning 3 seats in 1999, 12 in 2004 and 13 in 2009, it struggled to have any wider impact on British politics. Domestically, UKIP was for most of the 2000s eclipsed by the more classically fascist BNP. The BNP was much more attuned to taking local concerns and grievances and racialising them in local political campaigning, often in an anti-Muslim racist form. Its grassroots approach was something that UKIP learnt from.
Although UKIP continued to do well in European elections, in local elections the BNP did far better and for a while looked the most likely of the two to make a breakthrough. But neither party did well in the 2010 general election with UKIP wining 3% and the BNP 2% of the vote. But while this led to an implosion into in-fighting in the BNP, UKIP managed to start consolidating their position to the right of the Conservative Party.
UKIP and the BNP had distinctive, if overlapping, electoral bases. Voters for both parties tend to be male and uneducated. But BNP voters have a tendency to fall into the 35-55 age group, UKIP tend to be older than 55. BNP voters are more likely to be manual workers. In short, BNP supporters have a tendency to be racist thugs, UKIP racist bar-room bores.
The BNP built support in northern towns that had suffered from industrial decline and some of the poorer suburbs of London, UKIP’s strength was in the Midlands, East Anglia and the South East. To over generalise, BNP voters looked at immigrants as competitors for resources, for housing, jobs and benefits. UKIP supporters have a more general queasiness about modern life, and wish the clock could be turned back to a more conservative golden age.
Since the 2010 election the situation that UKIP has found themselves in has been transformed by a number of factors. First, the BNP has collapsed as an electoral force.
UKIP have sucked up most of this electoral support. Second, the collapse of the Lib Dems support. This has shown the failure of the left. With New Labour in power, and particularly with the war on terror after 2003, Labour lost votes to the Lib Dems since they were perceived as less bellicose and more social democratic. These votes have not gone back to Labour now that the Lib Dems are propping up a Conservative administration. The net beneficiaries of the Lib Dem’s collapse has been UKIP. Third, Labour has not attracted back much of the vote it lost in 2010. Even in social democratic electoral terms, Ed Miliband has failed to be a convincing leader with a credible set of policies. More broadly, the labour movement has not been able to convincingly build a pole of resistance to the policies of austerity and create a meaningful alternative to the assault by capital on working class people’s lives. Fourth, the Conservatives are helping too. David Cameron’s tokenistic liberal social policy, particularly gay marriage, is enough to put off many social conservatives who have boosted UKIP’s support. His slapdash policies on Europe too have succeeded only in strengthening UKIPs position.
In the early years of the coalition, UKIP made only limited progress, mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and to a lesser degree the Conservatives. Throughout 2010 and 2011 in a series of by-elections, Labour held seats with increased majorities. Labour won swings from 8% to 16%, and won Corby from the Conservatives. UKIP gained relatively small swings on their very moderate 2010 election results. Only in Corby did they win a larger swing than Labour, it would appear taking votes off the Conservatives and helping Labour win.
But by the end of 2011, something different started to emerge. In the Rotherham by-election in November 2011 Labour’s vote increased only by 2%. UKIP’s by 15%. Although votes were not being taken directly from Labour, voters who had seen the coalition in power were not switching to Labour. This was also seen in the by-election in South Shields. Here, Labour held the seat but with a 1.5% swing against them while UKIP increased their vote by 25 points.
Thus, even before May’s election there was evidence that UKIP had the potential to take votes from Labour. In May the most telling was the evidence of the local government elections. Here the issue is not simply the 22% of the vote that UKIP won, but where they had enough support to win seats.
Some of these seats were more of the same for UKIP, with wins in North Lincolnshire, Havering and Bexley, the ghost of conservative popularism past. The most notable result was in Rotherham in South Yorkshire, an area once dominated by steel and coal mining, but now the biggest local industries are scrap metal and the processing of animal by-products. It is a working class area where there are few decent jobs and trade unionism is a shadow of what it once was. It is also an area where the private contractor G4S have housed a considerable number of Roma asylum seekers without much thought to building up a good relationship with the local community.
Twenty-one council seats were contested in Rotherham. UKIP won ten. Labour held the other eleven. UKIP won the popular vote with 44% to Labour’s 42%. This is not entirely a bolt from the blue, before 2010 election, the BNP had built up a considerable base in the area, and had won three council seats, but UKIP’s win is on an all together different scale.
If, and it is a big if, UKIP can maintain this level of support they could win both parliamentary seats and control of the local council.
Part of what has happened is that the party system as we know it has collapsed in Rotherham. Many seats were straight fights between UKIP and Labour. The Lib Dems only contested one seat, and in many there was no Conservative candidate.
The Lib Dems already have no council seats in Rotherham, and the Conservatives are well on the way to being wiped out by UKIP. It would also appear that Labour is losing voters directly to UKIP. A section of the working class who previously accepted in some limited form the idea of collective action in defence of living standards and services has been drawn to ideas of blaming immigrants and the EU for their position.
It is notable that UKIP have been able to do this without a fully fleshed out popularist programme. Many European right wing popularist parties, for example the Danish People’s Party, have a side of anti-business and pro-welfare rhetoric that UKIP largely lack.
UKIP have so far stuck with policies of cutting taxes for the rich and vague rhetoric about protecting public services. There is a view in UKIP that they need to do more to attract Labour voters, and there has been a suggestion that they will launch a detailed policy on public services, but as yet this has come to nothing. Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s deputy leader who has been the strongest advocate in UKIP’s leadership of the push into Labour’s heartlands preferred policies are more of the same social conservatism, opposition to abortion and burkas and the support for murders at the end of a rope.
Rotherham shows how there are two possible futures in Britain. One where the labour movement is able to fight for people’s needs and rebuild a sense of solidarity. The other is where workers are left feeling vulnerable and with some turning to the politics of jealousy, guarding the national resources that they see as theirs against the threat of immigration and the EU.
It is easy to dismiss UKIP as a flash in the pan. It may well be that they fail to make progress in next year’s general election and collapse into in fighting. But it is likely that something else would fill the vacuum left. It is also possible that UKIP have already created a significant right-wing popularist force in British politics with roots in some sections of the working class. It is our job to rebuild the Labour movement that will halt their ascent.