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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle