Want to defeat UKIP? Then get more working class people into politics

If the left could get a few more "normal" people into politics, perhaps it wouldn’t be left to the reactionary right to shake up the political establishment.

Nigel Farage is a former stockbroker and the leader of a party which represents the interests of the white and well-heeled. UKIP in power would abolish inheritance tax, charge people to see a doctor and ban the teaching of climate change from the National Curriculum. UKIP wants to give more money to the top 2 per cent of the population and take it away from those who happen to get ill – however poor they are. Despite Farage’s matey, fag-and-a-pint image, UKIP represents the smirk on the corpse of cruel, reactionary England.

And yet despite this, the party attracts widespread working class support. The average Kipper is more likely to have finished education at 16 or under than voters of the three main parties and is less likely to be university-educated or have an income over £40,000. In explaining the UKIP phenomenon, the media enjoys waxing lyrical about disillusioned right-wing Tory voters, but far more interesting is the class background of many of the UKIP’s prospective voters: these are conservatives but with very little to be conservative about.  

In part this is the result of a clash between the London-based liberal left and the working class on whose behalf the former supposedly speak. Labour leader Ed Miliband is regularly chastised for betrayal by metropolitan types if he breaths so much as a word about immigration or welfare, yet the working class has fewer scruples. A majority of Labour voters believe benefits cuts are essential to make people stand on their own two feet, while economically insecure groups are "dramatically more hostile" to immigration than the middle classes, according to the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that those with most to lose from a party which harks back to the days of corporal punishment and tripe shops are attracted to UKIP through fear of immigrants and "scroungers". Anxiety is, after all, a fairly effective tool when deployed against the economically marginalised.

But I suspect something else is at work. In recent decades, not only have the two main political parties increasingly converged in terms of policy, but the pool which parliamentary talent is drawn from has become appreciably smaller, especially so for Labour. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some kind of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010, that figure had dropped to just 9 per cent. Changes in the labour market undoubtedly account for some of this change, but the extent to which parliament is rapidly (once again) becoming the talking shop of the upper middle classes is evident in other data too. An astonishing 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately-educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just 7 per cent of the school age population as a whole.

To some extent, politics has always been the preserve of the comfortable, but for a time there was a degree of travel in the opposite direction which reflected wider societal efforts to reduce inequality. During the 20th century, the social democratic settlement enabled a reduction in the gap between the highest and lowest earners and, as a consequence, a corresponding increase in social mobility. It also saw an unprecedented number of parliamentarians from modest backgrounds, such as Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin and Edward Heath, to name just a few. However, in the last 30 years the direction of travel has been very much in the opposite direction, with it becoming increasingly certain that a person born to a poor home will die in a poor home. The unprecedented degree to which the playing field has been skewed in favour of the well-off is, unsurprisingly, reflected in politics.

The gradual disappearance of the working class from mainstream political life has created fertile ground for the type of anti-politics espoused by Farage. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft found that a majority of UKIP voters were motivated, not by fondness for any particular UKIP policy, but by a more visceral feeling that UKIP is "on the side of people like me" and that "UKIP’s heart is in the right place".

Many commentators will attribute this to the mysterious "Farage effect" and the UKIP leader’s uncanny ability to connect with "ordinary voters". It is certainly a demagogic strand of populism which Farage is versed in, but I suspect the so-called Farage effect is at least in part no more than the UKIP leader’s ability to talk and act like a normal human being, rather than a weird atomaton who’s been groomed for office since stepping out of short trousers.

I don’t wish to patronise people by claiming that the working classes need to be talked down to (I’m from a single parent working class family, before I’m told to check my privilege), but even if his policies are bonkers, Nigel Farage comes across well with us "ordinary people" because he gives a very passable impression of being more than a little like us. Despite his less than horny-handed background, Farage behaves like someone who has at least some experience of life outside the upper middle class political and journalistic hivemind. At a time when the vast majority of the political class sound about as detached from reality as a Brezhnev apparatchik (and about as inspiring), being normal goes a long way.

As well as being a moral imperative, if the left could get a few more "normal"-  see working class - people into politics, then perhaps it wouldn’t be left to a Little Englander of the reactionary right to shake up the political establishment.

Nigel Farage canvasses for his party's local candidate Glyn Wright in Weaste, Salford, on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.