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

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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