The UKIP-ization of English politics

October 14, 2014

The racist, right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) won its first seat in parliament and very nearly a second in a pair of by-elections in Britain to fill vacant seats in the House of Commons. In elections for the European parliament in May, the UKIP won the largest share of the overall vote at 27.5 percent, establishing itself as a force alongside Britain's three major parties: the Conservative Party, or Tories, who rule over a coalition government in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, as well as the opposition Labour Party.

The victory in the Clacton constituency came after a Tory MP defected to the UKIP, and then easily won the resulting by-election, largely on the strength of voters who supported the Conservatives and the far-right British National Party (BNP) in previous elections. But in a second by-election the same day, the UKIP candidate nearly won a seat held by the Labour Party in the Heywood and Middleton district outside Manchester.

The strong result for the right-wing party in both races set off speculation about how strong the UKIP will run in the general parliamentary election to be held next year--and in particular, whether it could take seats from the center-left Labour Party. The UKIP is a hard-right populist party that is thriving on bigotry toward immigrants. Its electoral rise has been based on winning votes away from the fascist BNP and the Tory right--but it also has attempted to place itself in the tradition of British nationalism, and so its leaders, like Nigel Farage, have tried to distance the party from open expressions of anti-Semitism and fascism. Now the question is whether the UKIP's claim to speak for working-class voters disillusioned with the "New Labour" of Ed Milliband and other career politicians, has any reality.

In this article written for his Lenin's Tomb blog, Richard Seymour, author of The Meaning of David Cameron, analyzes the by-election results and their meaning for British politics.

I'LL TELL you what I think. I think this country is going to the dogs. I think it's being flooded, overrun, taken over. By thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of right-wing racist scum.

You can't even hear proper English spoken on a train any more. It's all "faaackin immigrants" this and "faaaackin immigrants" that. And they're not happy behind the privet-hedges any more. They're not comfortable in their cozy little ruts, their weekends of beer, barbecues and bigotry. They suddenly think they can run the country.

I wish I could say that this was the UKIP-ization of politics. The answer then would be simple: Send them back. Send them back to their provinces, their suburbs, their village Wetherspoon's, their urban overspill conurbations, their motorway service stations famed for dogging. But it's much, much worse than that.

You see, Nigel Farage said in his conference speech that UKIP was parking its tanks on Labour's lawn. He said that the party is not about left vs. right, but about right vs. wrong.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage
UKIP leader Nigel Farage

With the by-election results in the bag and a very strong showing in Heywood and Middleton, he says that UKIP is now the only national party--the only party that extends its reach into all classes and across the left-right divide. This is UKIP's populist gambit, in part tactical and in part strategic. The tactical element is the need to reassure Tory voters tempted by UKIP that they won't just let Labour in. The strategic element is that in order to seriously transform the Conservative Party, UKIP needs to assemble a force much larger than that comprising disaffected Tories and the fragments of the hard right.

HOW MUCH of this is Farage blowing it out of his fudgehole, and how much is UKIP really a threat to Labour? The answer is that Labour are threatened, but perhaps not in the way that many Labour-supporting pundits think. If you listen to Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, you would think that UKIP is actually becoming the party of the disenfranchised, old Labour-voting working class. This can't be discounted entirely. Plainly, UKIP has mobilized thousands of older, whiter working class voters. And at least some of these voters are people who would once have voted Labour.

This is how Labour's majority was cut dramatically in Heywood and Middleton. Even taking into account the reduced turnout, Labour seems to have picked up disenchanted Liberal voters and lost some of its own base to UKIP. While there is a significant national swing to Labour, in this instance, it was negligible due to the impact of UKIP, which cohered a range of disaffected voters. Undoubtedly, their core in Heywood and Middleton is working class Tories, but it seems unlikely that they would have come second without scooping up a few thousand ex-Labour voters. Of course, UKIP doesn't transcend left and right. Of course, its bedrock is the Thatcherite petty bourgeoisie. But its support has always crossed class lines, and now it's crossing party lines to an extent as well.

However, I am wary of any tendency to overplay this, in part because of that wing of the Labour intelligentsia that essentially wants Labour to remodel itself according to the Blue Labour motto "faith, flag and family." They who can think of nothing smarter than for the party of organized labor to tail a party whose colophon is a currency symbol. So let's be clear that any inroads UKIP makes into Labour territory are still very limited. Polling had shown before the by-elections that six times more former Tory voters than former Labour voters backed UKIP. The only MPs to defect to UKIP thus far are Tory MPs. The major funder to defect to UKIP is a Tory funder. The former deputy mayor defecting to UKIP is a Tory. And with Allan Craig from the Christian Alliance joining, the evidence is that UKIP is also mopping up the other fragments of the extra-Tory Right. Insofar as UKIP parks its tanks in Labour seats, its biggest windfall is of former Tory voters. I suspect that, for all its racist dog-whistling about the child rape scandal, it is far too conventionally Tory to threaten Labour in the same way and to the same degree that it threatens the Conservatives.

Still, with those proportions guarded, the other danger is that it is underplayed in order to spare Miliband's Bean-like face. Liz MacInnes tried to say, after her victory, that the result was a ringing endorsement for Ed Miliband's leadership. This is laughable and, unfortunately for her, plenty of UKIP people were on hand to give the comment the jeer it deserved. Nor can we take consolation in the idea that this was just a protest vote by voters who feel excluded from the mainstream. Of course, there is an element of truth in this. UKIP's campaign posters tapped into this: "How many more times are they going to let you down?" and "Labour doesn't care" were big themes. As with all protest votes, however, there is a political and ideological content, and in this case, it signified a further shift to the right in English politics.

Helen Pidd reports for the Guardian that in Heywood and Middleton, the single most prominent issue raised in the campaign was immigration. Immigration has come to stand for everything that is going wrong in people's lives. With the standard of living dropping for the longest period since the Depression, with wages stagnating, public services being cut, the poorest at each other's throats over the measliest of welfare crumbs, and no one--not the Left, certainly not Labour--able to articulate a viable opposition, UKIP are the ones canalizing popular resentment. It's all the immigrants that Labour let in. You can't even hear an English voice on a train any more. You can't even live in a big city now, it's full of them. They work for pennies and shit in doorways. Labour's strategy was to ignore this as far as possible, and focus on the NHS--one of very few areas on which Labour has put clear distance between itself and the coalition.

THIS IS the dilemma for the Labour leadership. Every ingrained instinct tells them to nod along to the anti-immigrant beat, to acknowledge the "real concerns" behind this racism, to try to deck it in a progressive pallium. They want to protest that, after Scotland, they are the real party of Britain. They want to say that they are the party that put asylum seekers in detention centers and ratcheted up the "integration" agenda. They want to say that they were beating up on immigrants before Nigel Farage was. They want to say that they understood the concerns of ordinary people and will take very tough decisions, very tough decisions indeed, to prevent abuses and protect working people. Indeed, they've more or less said all this before and will say it again. But they also know that this can't be their pitch to core Labour voters. And if they'd tried it in Heywood and Middleton, they would have been laughed at. After all, UKIPers would simply have pointed out that it was under a Labour administration that waves of migrant laborers from Eastern Europe were admitted to the UK, and added that the party obviously has no intention of withdrawing from the EU.

And somehow, this is connected ideologically to the credit crunch. Labour's bungling. Labour's economic mismanagement. Labour's mass immigration and overspending. And Labour certainly can't challenge anti-immigration rhetoric in response to this or make a positive case for migration, any more than they can persuasively state how they would do things differently in the economy. To do that, they'd have to be prepared to fight a long, difficult battle and reconcile themselves to press unpopularity and even major losses in the short term. It's just not in their political DNA; institutionalized defeat, self-loathing and the assumption that Thatcher was right about all big questions is. So they had to run a bland, single-issue campaign to barely scrape back in.

Now, with growing calls from Labour's right for Alan Johnson to challenge Miliband, the pressure will be on to start flooding the papers with "tough" announcements, immigrant-baiting and flag-waving. Whereas the swami of Blue Labour wanted the party to be a home for sad old street-fighting losers in the EDL, the goal now will be to channel the provincials of the east coast, the suburban white flight families, concerned cabbies, elderly racists, and so on. Ed Miliband will meet "Brian, a self-employed plumber from Clacton who told me a heartbreaking story. 'What abaaaht all these immigrants,' he asked as I gripped his shoulder and crooned sympathetically. 'There's fackin faaasands of the cahnts. When they're not dahn the dowl office, they're undercutting me. I'm tryna raise a fambly.'"

Later on, to Miliband's complete surprise, Brian from Clacton will turn out to be a real person, a Tory voter, and a cause célèbre akin to Joe the Plumber. He will end up on a platform next to "White Dee," endorsing Iain Duncan Smith's plans to cut benefits for street urchins, drunken tearaways and Romanians. Meanwhile his son will be arrested for calling a celebrity crime-fighter a "cock" on Twitter and locked up for five years. Labour will decry the breakdown in British values and call for the Tories to distance themselves from deadbeat dad Brian, while the same celebrity will end up standing for "Common Sense Labour" or "Tough on Latvians Labour" or "Hovis Labour, just like your mam used to make" in Burnley, parroting whatever moronic patriotic spiel they've been given by the Ollie Readers of Brewer's Green. One Nation Labour, decidedly not under a groove.

Nor is it just that Labour will be pulled to the right alongside the Tories. I have argued that Farage's strategic prize is the leadership of the Tory Party. He wants the Cameronites out, the Thatcherite Eurosceptics in. It's a middle-class putsch. But he doesn't want this as an end in itself. So you might argue that what he actually wants, his real objective, is to get Britain out of the EU. Yes, but he doesn't want that as an end in itself either. It is about the UK's growth strategy, its labor standards, its regulatory framework, its currency and its financial markets, its human rights laws, criminal justice, and so on. It is about reorienting business away from Europe and toward a more hyper-Atlanticist, "free market" strategy. It is about liberating small investors, venture capitalists, lone 'entrepreneurs' and small-to-medium sized firms from onerous labor laws and Brussels regulations. It is about reorganizing the state so that it is more "libertarian" in matters of property rights, and more disciplinarian in matters of obedience to authority. The challenge to the "metropolitan elite," the "political class"--whatever you wish to call it--is ultimately an attempt to recompose the power bloc.

So this is UKIP-ization. We may be far from this objective, but most of the dynamic forces in English politics currently tend in its direction.

ONE LAST thing. Nigel Farage's strategy is in some respects similar to that of Nick Griffin when he was leading the BNP. Griffin would soften the rhetoric prior to elections and then, bouyed by victory, come out with something like calling for immigrants' boats to be sunk in order to harden support. Before the election, Farage was going out of his way to play down the role of the far right in his party, to say that he didn't want BNP votes and generally represent himself as a spokesperson for the silent majority of closet racists.

Now he has taken the opportunity afforded by this victory to say that migrants with HIV shouldn't be allowed in the UK, thus rehearsing an imagined connection between immigration, disease and sexuality, a theme that is as old as scientific racism. It is unlikely that this was a fuck-up; more probably, it was a deliberate, punctual gesture. Because the fact that the leadership of UKIP is always having to explain away the latest bonkers statement or seig-heil photo from a leading UKIPer, the party sees as an oppressive result of "politically correct" tyranny. This isn't just bombast, they really do see the boundaries of what other people would call civility, decency, humanity, as a dictatorship of metropolitan values. They see "political correctness" as a domesticating, timidifying set of controls. They blame this consensus for the Cameronites, for the betrayals of the political class, and they chafe under such limits. One of the things that Farage is doing is trying to open up a space in which all the stuff that you're not allowed to say about gays or the disabled is more permissible.

This is another aspect of UKIP-ization: small, cumulative acts of de-civilization, the barbarization of discourse, and the revival of habits of speech and mind that had been pushed to the margins of society. It can't be long, on past form, before a Labour backbencher vocalizes the same worries about HIV interlopers, and the Sun mounts one of its crusades.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

Further Reading

From the archives