Westminster may dabble in xenophobia, but the reality is that racism isn’t popular

Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have.

Painted in a certain light, Britain in the summer of 2013 can be made to look pretty nasty. Government vans crawled the streets with a threat to migrants conveyed in the tone of a police state and the idiom of the far right: “Go home or face arrest.” Politicians blame every malaise on foreign interlopers: new arrivals with jobs must be jumping the queue; those without work must be gobbling benefits and hogging hospital beds. Westminster cringes before Ukip, a party that lubricates intolerance with theatrical pub cheer.

But with a change of palette, the same country can be construed differently. The menacing vans have been steered off the streets by the threat of a legal challenge, exposing a failure of process at the Home Office. The stunt has been quietly disowned by Downing Street. (“The Prime Minister probably didn’t even know it was happening,” a senior Tory adviser tells me.) Even Nigel Farage affected distaste at a “nasty, Big Brother” device.

The anxiety about immigration that shows up in opinion polls is not matched by an exclusion of immigrants and their families from British culture. Only a year ago, the nation cheered Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, flagbearers for multi-ethnic Britishness, as its Olympic king and queen. TV audiences elected a Hungarian dance troupe as this year’s winner of Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t a scientific reading of the collective mood but it suggests we are some way off from nationalist frenzy.

For every ministerial dabble in the vilification of migrants, there is a caveat of admiration for the contribution that foreigners have made to the enrichment of these isles. That is the paradox of British political xenophobia – the racist element in populism must be discreet because overt racism isn’t popular.

There is plainly some ugly bigotry expressed in Ukip’s rise but the stronger animus is reserved for politicians from other parties who are accused of colluding in an open-border policy and sneering at anyone who objects. Conservative and Labour MPs say the pro-Farage voters they meet on the doorstep barely distinguish between a blue and a red rosette. They are treated as interchangeable logos on one governing machine.

So there may be less mileage than Conservative strategists think in boasting that the Tories are slamming shut the gates supposedly left open by Labour. When official statistics show net migration falling, voters don’t believe it. Besides, the transitional controls on migration from Bulgaria and Romania – EU members since 2007, whose access to the British jobs market has been delayed – will be lifted in January 2014. Ukip officials barely contain their glee at the unravelling this portends for Conservative claims to be running a “tough” border regime.

Labour suffers from a complex of agonies over immigration. It knows it has lost thousands of votes over the issue. The political computation of that number is then muddled by contradictory impulses: anti-racism as an ethical hallmark of left politics; a tendency to be automatically pro-European for fear of overlapping with Little Englanders’ cartoon hatred of Brussels; a liberal conviction that enterprising migrants are good for the economy and society; a less liberal distaste for the way globalisation treats labour as a fluid resource, sloshing across borders at capital’s behest.

Then there is Ed Miliband’s background as the son of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The Labour leader is obliged by political reality to address resentment of mass immigration and driven by his upbringing to see the migrants’ side of the story. That could be a recipe for indecision. It may also be a useful combination, because immigrant communities in marginal seats could decide the outcome in a closely fought general election.

Non-white voters do not have uniform political preferences but there is a clear pattern of mistrust of the Tories. There are Conservatives, mostly in urban constituencies with thin majorities, who see this as a long-term crisis for the party. Their concerns have been swept aside in the tactical dash to plug the leak of angry white votes to Ukip.

By contrast, Labour’s position – interpreted generously – is to focus on the causes of antiimmigrant feeling: low wages; a housing crisis that breeds resentment of foreign families in council properties; the skills shortage in an army of unemployed youth. Miliband’s aim, say his friends, is to move the conversation away from race and on to systemic failings in an economy that permits the routine exploitation of migrants and neglect of local labour forces.

That was the point the shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, tried to make in a speech on 12 August but the message was garbled. The intervention was erected on a platform of factual error, resulting in an overnight rewrite and a panicky retreat from attacks on corporate employers, encouraging the less generous interpretation of Labour’s position as an unprincipled shambles.

That is unfortunate, because Miliband’s nuanced line, treating immigration anxiety as a function of deep-rooted economic insecurity, deserves an airing. Britain is not a nasty country. Nor is it poised to instal a Ukip government, as more level-headed Tories can see. One Conservative backbencher, lamenting his party’s fringe obsession, recently told me: "People talk about Nigel Farage’s great charisma. Actually, I think a lot of people see him as a bit of a dick."

Westminster devotes more energy to decoding what goes on in the minds of the one in ten voters who might back Ukip than it does to understanding the larger number of people who know that Faragism isn’t the solution. There is in any society a bitter, defensive streak that can be brought out by fear and a generous side that thrives on trust. Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have and the kind of country most of us want.

A van carrying the Home Office's message to illegal immigrants: 'Go home or face arrest.'

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.