UKIP: the victory of the ruling class

Chris Dillow explores the elitism of Britain's most successful anti-elitist party.

In a protest against an out-of-touch political class, the British public have voted for a party led by someone whose class background is indistinguishable from Cameron's or Clegg's.

In this respect, UKIP's success demonstrates not the weakness of the ruling class, but the exact opposite - its complete victory.

I don't just mean this in the sense that political power is held in the hands of such a narrow group that the Dulwich-educated son of a stockbroker can present himself as an outsider.

What I mean is that, as Adam says, UKIP is not an anti-establishment party. For example:

  • The demand for tougher border controls is a call for an increase in the power of the state.
  • Whilst its possible that immigration control might be very slightly positive for low-wage workers, it would be bad for average wage-earners, and there are many better ways of improving the lot of unskilled workers.
  • Hostility to gay marriage is fundamentally anti-liberty, as it asserts the power of the state to intervene in private relationships.
  • The call for a flat rate 25% tax would be a big tax cut for the rich.
  • Cutting employment regulations would worsen working conditions and job security for ordinary workers, without creating many jobs.
  • The demand that welfare recipients do compulsory workfare and not buy cigarettes or alcohol would be a reduction in the welfare state safety net, to the detriment not just of actual recipients but also to those in insecure jobs who fear becoming jobless.

UKIP's policies, then, do not challenge either the power of capital over worker or (what is a similar but distinct thing) the power of managerialists.

This is why I say their support represents the victory of the ruling class, because it demonstrates their complete power. I'm thinking here of Steven Lukes' "third dimension" of power:

Is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have - that is, to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?...Is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things? (Power: a radical view, 2nd ed, p27, 28)

It's in this sense that the ruling class has triumphed. The discontent that people might reasonably feel against bankers, capitalists and managerialists has been diverted into a hostility towards immigrants and the three main parties, and to the benefit of yet another party with a managerialist and pro-capitalist ideology. In this way, even "protest" votes help sustain existing class and power structures.

This piece was originally posted on Stumbling and Mumbling, and has been reposted here with permission.

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Photo: Paul Sweeney
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Glasgow North East Labour MP Paul Sweeney: “Yes badges were cool in 2014 – now it's Jeremy”

The son of a shipbuilder harnessed the Corbyn surge to win over pro-Scottish independence voters.

In 2014, on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, a young BAE graduate called Paul Sweeney introduced Gordon Brown.  He was there because of a referendum that “sent you into a black hole and spat you back out”, as he puts it. In his case, this started with a letter warning of the impact of independence on the shipbuilding industry, which led to a photoshoot, an appearance on the 6 o’clock news, and eventually the warm-up act for a former Prime Minister.

“Glasgow did feel like the ground was moving under your feet,” Sweeney says.  “It was exhilarating, terrifying.” But unlike Sweeney, most young Glaswegians were swept up in the independence movement, and the north east of the city where he lived was one of the strongest areas for Yes.

Brown’s speech was widely acclaimed for saving the union. But in Glasgow, voters were disappointed, and in the general election, Labour campaigners “were really told where to go”. Glasgow North East, a traditional Labour seat, fell to the Scottish National Party.

And yet, just two years and a snap election later, Sweeney is sitting in Westminster’s Portcullis House, as the constituency’s new Labour MP. How?

“From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory”

Sweeney, a fresh-faced 28, was ambitious for his constituency from a young age. “I was brought up in a Labour family – a working class family – in the north of Glasgow,” he tells me. “From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory.”

His mother, who worked in the Bank of Scotland, grew up in Milton, a housing scheme in northern Glasgow. “My mum used to talk about how it was a lovely area and lots of families there.” But by the time he was a child, drug abuse was on the increase, and “despair crept in”. Visiting his grandmother had to be done on foot: “You couldn’t drive a car in there because it would be vandalised.”

Sweeney’s father was a shipbuilder. In the 1990s, as shipyards fell silent, he was made redundant several times. “I remember getting up to see him off going to Barrow-in-Furness [in Cumbria],” Sweeney says. “I remember not getting much for Christmas because money was tight.” His father eventually became a taxi driver.

Sweeney, though, increasingly felt compelled to fight the decline. He studied politics and economics at Glasgow University and enrolled in the Territorial Army, before graduating and joining the defence giant BAE. In 2015, he moved to Scotland’s economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise.

At the same time, he joined Labour, inspired by the late John Smith, whom his parents called “the greatest leader my country never had”.  In 2009, he was doing his exams, when Sarah Brown, wife to then-prime minister Gordon Brown, called and asked him if he wanted to help Labour’s candidate Willie Bain in the Glasgow North East by-election.

Sweeney joined a team that included Kezia Dugdale, the future Scottish Labour leader. The Tory candidate was one Ruth Davidson. He recently reminisced with Dugdale about the by-election: “We were saying who would have thought all these changes would have happened in a relatively short period of time.

The Yes badges were the cool thing to have – now it was Jeremy

Bain won, but was swept from office by the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin in 2015 in such an upset that Sweeney started his 2017 campaign only hoping to reduce her 9,222 majority. With little funding, he relied on a team of young volunteers to design leaflets and door-knock.

Then something changed. Was it the Corbyn surge? “Absolutely – without a shadow of a doubt,” he replies.

Initially sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn, Sweeney believes his “vision of hope” revived Labour’s fortunes. In Dennistoun, a hipster neighbourhood known for its SNP and Green vote, all the posters in the windows were Labour ones. “It was sexy again,” he says. “The Yes badges were the cool thing to have on your school bag. Now it was Jeremy.”

One day, a group of young men began shouting at the canvassing team. “We thought, ‘Here we go,’ then it actually turned out they were shouting ‘C’mon the Jez, let’s get Jeremy in.’ It was people who you wouldn’t normally think would vote. I thought that was fantastic.”

All the same, Sweeney didn’t bother drafting a victory speech. He describes the count as “like you are flying through the air”.  When he knew he had won, his first thought was: “Oh, shit, I need to do an acceptance speech."

One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan

Now safely landed in Westminster, Sweeney hopes to draw on his experience in industry and the military. The latter has taught him caution, not jingoism.

“One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan,” he says. “It was a terrible time. It was just unbelievable. He went there because he wanted an experience. He wasn’t in the army as such – he was captain of the Scottish Lacrosse team.

“It does lead you to ask, ‘What are we doing? What is the meaning behind this? The intent is noble but there is a certain amount of ignorance about what needs to be done to achieve the political outcome.”

Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand Province, he points out, is the size of Wales: “We are trying to control it with 8,000 people.”

On Trident, an issue that traditionally divides Labour’s pacifists from its hawks, Sweeney’s view is also nuanced. “Trident actually saps services from other ship building industries,” he says. “There was a huge investment on the Clyde and money has to be diverted now. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Sweeney calls himself “restless” for change. He hates “energy vampires”, as he calls those that stand in the way. But while the spectre of economic neglect has clearly driven his career, he is also excited about ideas of nationalisation and regeneration.

“My family are steeped in the Clyde ship building,” he says. “Sitting on your dad’s shoulders watching these ships being launched – it is an extraordinary achievement.

“You can understand why it was so emotional when the ship building declined. It was part of their identity. These are the largest objects made by man. It is incredible to behold.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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