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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump