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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times