UKIP is what you get after 30 years of neoliberalism

Why a lurch to the right won't win back voters.

UKIP may well be "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" but they're also riding high after last week's by-election result. Farage must be kicking himself for not standing, as just 1,800 votes separated his party (and it is his party) from the hapless LibDems. With his profile, had he not ducked out of the fight the commentariat today would be poring over a loss as horrifying to the Tories as Galloway's win in Bradford was for Labour.

In an attempt to put a brave face on the 14-point drop, Clegg said "We overcame the odds with a stunning victory". A solid LibDem constituency with 40 LibDem borough councillors (gaining two in 2012) aren't exactly adverse conditions, Nick. For Ed Miliband, Labour must "redouble its efforts" to win over people who wouldn't normally vote for it.

And then there is Dave. His response was a bland "This is a by-election. It's mid-term. It's a protest. That's what happens in by-elections. It's disappointing for the Conservative Party but we must remain true to our principles, true to our course, and that way we can win people back." If you say so, Dave. But every socialist and progressive person must hope they listen to Tory vice chair, Michael Fabricant, and act accordingly. He said "The Conservative voice is muffled and not crisp. It does not clearly project Conservative core policies or principles." Does he have a point?

Some Tories regard UKIP with envious eyes and believe tacking right will win the voters back. As empiricists of the crudest and most stupid kind, the simple arithmetic of adding the Tory and UKIP vote is taken for proof. But, to use the old language, you have to burrow beneath appearances to get at the essence of things. One Tory with more sense than his feverish contemporaries is Lord Ashcroft. Based on a study of 14 focus groups with UKIP voters and maybes, Ashcroft's observation is worth quoting at length:

The single biggest misconception about the UKIP phenomenon is that it is all about policies: that potential UKIP voters are dissatisfied with another party’s policy in a particular area (usually Europe or immigration), prefer UKIP’s policy instead, and would return to their original party if only its original policy changed.

In fact, in the mix of things that attract voters to UKIP, policies are secondary. It is much more to do with outlook. Certainly, those who are attracted to UKIP are more preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children. All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by UKIP voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.

UKIP, for those who are attracted to it, may be the party that wants to leave the EU or toughen immigration policy but its primary attraction is that it will "say things that need to be said but others are scared to say". [My emphasis]

Where UKIP's support comes from is the virulent disenchantment and irreverence with and toward official politics. It is a knee-jerk reaction - in both senses - against the cultural trajectory toward greater integration and acceptance of minority communities at the perceived expense of the majority, and is also a diffuse, unforeseen consequence of the ways our social fabric has been bent and ripped by 30 years of neoliberal economics. Think I'm flogging a hobby horse by banging on about the dismal science? Well, all you need do is look at all the liberal democracies who've undergone similar social change over that time frame - most continental countries have seen the emergence of right-populist parties and movements speaking to (national-specific) concerns outlined by Ashcroft, and all position themselves as ostensible truth-tellers to a corrupt, uncaring and elitist political class.

As the party of government, and one of two parties naturally capable of forming governments, right populism is closed off for the Tories as a serious political strategy. They can indulge in contrived demonisations of immigrants and social security recipients, play around with Europe and other "UKIP" issues (they can even steal their colours), but as they pose their UKIP-lite to the real deal, more moderate voters who might like Dave, appreciate his principled stand on equal marriage, and accept the austerity programme will get alienated. Trying to out-UKIP UKIP on policy hobbles the Tories, and misrecognises the nature of the beast they're up against.

But the Tories, or at least its dwindling and ageing activist base, believe that grappling UKIP issue-by-issue is the route out of their impasse. Ashcroft instead suggests that at least among those UKIP voters who could be persuaded to switch back, patient explanation and clear evidence of policy delivery and efficacy could win them down. But with Dave and Gideon dogmatically addicted to trickle down assumptions and the disastrous economic policy that flows from that, UKIP will continue to thwart, blunt and erode the Tory capacity to fight and win elections.

It is worth remembering that UKIP springs from a pool that has analogous constituencies across Europe and the United States, it is also part of the long decline of conservative politics as hegemonically constituted in the British (or, more specifically, English) context. With more expulsions, resignations, and defections than your average Trot group, UKIP is an incredibly volatile party. Like most such movements/parties, the persona of its leading figure plays a crucial role in holding it together - without them as a focal point for a movement to invest its hopes and aspirations, it can quickly dissipate - as the subsequent fate of Lijst Pim Fortuyn proved after the murder of its leader.

Another thing missing from Ashcroft's analysis is the appreciation of age. The concerns he identifies are, to put it bluntly, mainly middle-aged and old-aged worries. The latest YouGov tracker poll [PDF] finds them on four and three per cent respectively among the 18-24s, and 25-39s. Of course, younger people's attitudes change with age but the under 40s are far more at ease with the sort of Britain UKIP rails against. In other words, the efficacy of UKIP and right populism is time-limited.

As a Labour and labour movement person, I am only worried about UKIP in as far as they can tap into discontent among our support, which has so far proven to be limited. More important is that our party and our movement rebuild trust in politics by rebuilding itself and, later in government, tackling the conditions that fuel anti-political rage. Again, following Ashcroft's advice, it means policy delivery. But more than that we need to seriously address the kind of economy we want and ensure our people feel secure in their place in it. If you can't offer certainty, it's small wonder that many millions turn off and switch to those whose politics promise a reified form of security.

This is a cross-post from Phil Burton-Cartledge's blog A Very Public Sociologist

UKIP's leader Nigel Farage. (Photo: Getty.)

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at All That Is Solid and lectures at the University of Derby. He tweets as @philbc3.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.