Out of his depth? Nigel Farage during flooding on the Somerset levels in February. Photo: Getty
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How do you solve a problem like Nigel?

Whether or not Ukip gets its “political earthquake” in the European polls, it has changed the terrain of the next general election.

Nigel Farage reveals a lot through the things he chooses not to do and the things he regrets having said. For example, the Ukip leader recently decided he would not stand as a parliamentary candidate in the Newark by-election due on 5 June. He conceded, according to BBC reports, that his party’s “bubble would burst” if he ran and lost.

Farage now denies using the “b” word, for obvious reasons: to concede that his current support is overinflated is to hasten the day that it shrivels. But if Ukip continues to harvest votes on anything like the scale it has done in recent months, it will determine the outcome of the next general election. Farage attracts support from across the political spectrum but causes roughly twice as much damage to the Tories as to Labour. As Ed Miliband’s core vote is bolstered by left-wing defectors from the Liberal Democrat camp, it won’t take much of a Ukip turnout in marginal seats to result in David Cameron’s eviction from office.

For months now, the Conservatives have been braced for a shellacking in the local and European elections, with Ukip the main aggressor. Downing Street’s focus has been on averting panic among Tory MPs in the short term and then, over time, chipping away at Farage’s credibility and respectability. The aim is for angry voters to see Ukip as a tool of midterm protest but not a valid menu item when it comes to choosing a government.

Central to this argument is the warning that Britain could find itself saddled with a pro-European, pro-immigration Labour government, although Tory MPs report limited success with that line. Many Ukip voters are sufficiently enraged with all of Westminster to see no significant difference between the major parties. Downing Street is becoming more aware of the limitations of “Vote Farage; get Miliband” as a message. One No 10 source tells me: “It will have to be more sophisticated than that.” The general election campaign will stress economic dependability. Cameron will be sold as the only candidate who can be relied upon not to poison the recovery with snake-oil policy prescriptions, whether bottled as Farage’s fearmongering nationalism or as Miliband’s wealth-destroying retro-socialism.

Yet the Tories know that they can only begin to push that message once the smoke raised by the European election result clears. This is where the Newark by-election – and Farage’s decision to sit it out – becomes interesting. The seat has a solid Tory majority of 16,000. With different boundaries in the past, it has returned Labour MPs. The present vacancy exists because the incumbent, Patrick Mercer, resigned over egregious breaches of parliamentary rules regarding cash for lobbying. It is the kind of contest that delivers an earth-shaking upset ahead of a general election when there is a prevailing sense that the country is about to jettison the government of the day – as in the run-up to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide and Gordon Brown’s despatch in 2010. No one in Westminster detects such a mood abroad today. Labour is playing down its chances. The Liberal Democrats will be happy just to finish ahead of the Bus Pass Elvis Party.

Farage looked at the odds and decided that he, too, couldn’t win. He also meditated on Ukip’s handling of two earlier by-elections in this parliament. One was in February 2013 at Eastleigh in Hampshire, where the party came second and scooped the most votes cast on polling day. The Lib Dems held the seat only because they had organised a firewall of postal votes. The other was in February this year, at Wythenshawe and Sale East in Manchester, where Ukip again came second, beaten by Labour’s well-oiled get-out-the-vote machine. The second of these results wasn’t bad for the Faragists but was widely read as an embarrassing setback because, after Eastleigh, the expectations of a breakthrough had run out of control.

The lessons for Ukip’s high command from those episodes were that taking Westminster seats is a whole lot harder than heaping up protest votes in national opinion polls, and that the loss of underdog status poses a significant threat to the party. Once seen as the main challenger to the leading parties, Ukip is subjected to raised expectations of consistency and professionalism that it struggles to meet.

A big problem is finding candidates who have enough character to stand out in a campaign, thus easing the pressure on Farage to be constantly front-of-house, and without looking creepy or betraying views that make wavering supporters flinch. A very senior figure in Ukip once complained to me that it attracted “people who have failed at everything else in life, are feeling angry about it and are looking for someone to blame”. Last year, when there was chatter around Westminster of David Cameron facing a leadership challenge, the party tried hard to “turn” a handful of rebellious Tory MPs but none took the bait.

In any case, Tory defectors do not necessarily make good Ukip advocates. Until last month, the party’s campaigns director was Neil Hamilton, the former Conservative MP best known for losing a safe seat in 1997 thanks to his embroilment in the cash-for-questions scandal. Hamilton was demoted when Farage started struggling to answer reporters’ questions about how an emblem of Westminster sleaze fitted Ukip’s anti-establishment message.

In Newark, the party’s candidate is Roger Helmer, a 70-year-old former Tory MEP whose record of social commentary includes defending a policy to repatriate immigrants, claiming that some rape victims should “share part of the responsibility” for being attacked and sympathising with people who finding homosexuality “abnormal and undesirable”. (Nigel Farage told Jeremy Paxman on 19 May: “He was brought up in a traditional biblical upbringing. He lived as a young man in a country where homosexual behaviour was an imprisonable offence . . . You know social attitudes do change and we shouldn’t demonise people.”)

Ukip’s dilemma is that it relies on votes from people who wish such views enjoyed more currency in mainstream politics, while also feeling the need to dissociate itself from lurid prejudice. It is hard to disentangle the two impulses. Scrutiny of Ukip’s rank and file has flushed out a stream of councillors and activists who deploy the idioms and imagery of the far right – Holocaust denial, Nazi salutes and calls for expulsion of non-white people from Britain. This month, Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a British-born Indian former member of Ukip, published a withering attack on the party for “deliberately attracting the racist vote” and moving in a direction she found “terrifying”.

Nigel Farage’s jovial bluster is no longer sufficient to launder the more sinister views that swirl around him. He turns tetchy when challenged over his distaste for foreign languages spoken on trains. His casual conflations of Romanian nationality and criminal behaviour have prompted hostile comment from previously indulgent Tory-leaning newspapers. Farage seems unsure whether he should be defending the assertion or apologising for it.

It is not yet clear what the impact of any of this will be on Ukip’s poll performance. The party still enjoys some immunity by claiming to be the victim of smears by the “mainstream media” and the “Westminster establishment”. MPs from all parties are torn between the urge to denounce Ukip as a receptacle for xenophobic bile and fear of alienating their own errant voters.

On the Tory side there is growing confidence that Ukip support can only decline as the party acquires a disreputable air. The source of many press reports that embarrass Farage is Conservative Campaign HQ, where researchers scour pamphlets and social media for unsavoury remarks by Ukip candidates. Tory strategists recognise that undermining Farage is a job best undertaken at arm’s length. Too many direct attacks by Cameron would lend Ukip the status of equal adversary and risk reminding Tory dissenters of the times they have felt insulted by their own leader. “We need the racist thing to seep into public consciousness,” says an ally of the Prime Minister. “But it can’t be us saying it.”

Moderate Tories are beginning to see an opportunity to cleanse their own party of toxic associations if the perception of nasty extremism can be made to cling to Farage. Some MPs admit privately to being glad to see the back of some of the defectors from their local constituency organisations – a view reinforced by the abusive letters and threatening emails they get from the new Ukip recruits. “In a bizarre kind of way they’ve done the Tories a favour in the long run by making us look moderate,” says one Conservative who is defending a marginal seat.

Labour has been slow in waking up to that dynamic. At first, the opposition tended to view Farage’s strength as a helpful disruption of Tory support – a family feud on the right that eased Miliband’s path to Downing Street. Then it became clear that Ukip was attracting support from older, working-class voters who felt neglected by Labour in government, especially over immigration policy, but remained culturally immune to voting Tory. At that point, Miliband’s allies conceded that there was a potential hazard down the line but insisted it was not big enough to cost Labour seats in the 2015 general election. Only in recent weeks have aides started voicing concern that Ukip is dragging the whole political debate on to terrain that the Labour leader finds inhospitable.

At the start of the year, senior Labour figures were counting on the result of the European elections to trigger civil strife on the Tory side. Now they are frantically managing down expectations of their own performance, portraying the poll as a false indicator of national allegiances in which the voices of fanatical Eurosceptics will be over-represented – a free hit in which voters will punish all the Westminster parties. (As one strategist puts it: “A f*** you vote in a f*** you election.”)

The results of European ballots show a historically weak correlation with the outcomes of subsequent general elections. William Hague’s Tories won in 1999. A decade earlier the Green Party took 15 per cent of the vote. Politics then reverted to prior trends. Awkwardly for Miliband, that trend looks like a downward drift for Labour. A modest opinion-poll advantage is melting into the margin of error. At this stage of the parliament, an opposition expecting to win the next general election would usually have a commanding lead. Even in the unfamiliar landscape of coalition politics, with Ukip as a wild card, Labour should be the natural choice of people who voted Tory in 2010 and have since regretted it. “You’d expect them to be switching from government to opposition, not to some random third party,” says Ben Page, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos MORI. “Labour just isn’t getting those switchers.”

Labour’s campaign has not been short of policy. There have been announcements about housing (capping rents; taxing unused properties), wages (beefing up the statutory minimum) and health (guaranteed GP appointments within 48 hours), among others. There have been aggressive assaults on Nick Clegg as the pathetic mascot of millionaire-hugging Tories. Labour has also trained its fire on Ukip, presenting it as a gang of hard-nut Thatcherites, bent on robbing workers of their employee protections and privatising the NHS.

To Labour’s great frustration, those messages have, in media terms, been peripheral to the noisier arguments about EU membership and whether or not a man who doesn’t want to live next door to Romanians is a racist. Miliband believes his focus on cost-of-living issues and fixing an economy that channels more wealth to the wealthy will look more relevant – prescient, even – when attention returns to the general election.

The European poll was always going to be a moment of intense interest in Ukip and a probable high-water mark in its support. Farage’s discomfort when interrogated about race and his difficulty recruiting presentable candidates can only increase when voters are choosing MPs to form a government, rather than lashing out indiscriminately at Westminster. Still, his capacity to harm Cameron’s prospects of re-election remains strong. The working assumption among Labour and Tories alike is that Ukip needs to take only about 7-8 per cent of the vote in 2015 to deprive the Conservatives of a Commons majority, which is a low bar for a party that regularly achieves double that score in the opinion polls.

For Labour, the threat is different but no less severe. Ukip’s reach may be limited by its status as a vehicle for protest votes but that gives it power to define the terms of protest in ways that harm the constitutionally recognised main opposition party. Labour’s priority is to look like a government-in-waiting but part of that image requires also looking like the main destination for people who don’t like the incumbents. Throughout the current parliament, Miliband’s defenders have credited him with courage in challenging the conventional political and economic wisdom; breaking with the old free-market orthodoxies; tackling “powerful vested interests” in the form of Rupert Murdoch, bankers, the big energy companies and (less convincingly) the dominance of Labour Party structures by the trade unions.

If that claim were resonating with voters, at least some of the insurgent energy that is fuelling the Ukip phenomenon would be lighting up Labour’s campaigns. Instead the party is lumped in with the Tories and Lib Dems as part of a shabby establishment stitch-up, with the added baggage of a reputation for economic mismanagement.

It is an old opposition conundrum: how to fashion a message that is dramatic enough to represent a credible alternative to the status quo, yet responsible enough to withstand scrutiny as a potential programme for government. Ukip isn’t bothering with the second part of the equation (which will be its undoing next year), but Farage is hogging the rhetoric of change and upheaval. His incendiary nationalism burns up the oxygen of publicity that Miliband needs to illuminate his milder offer of soft-left populism. That all suits Cameron to the extent that he is in the business of promising security through continuity.

While Labour and Tories have opposing reasons for wanting to see Farage thwarted, the basis for their arguments is the same. Downing Street aides and Miliband advisers both speak of the need to impress upon voters how high the stakes will be in 2015; how the ultimate question is whether Cameron is allowed to continue as Prime Minister – with one side warning that another term of Conservatism would finish off hope of fair rewards for all and the other warning that Labour would guarantee national bankruptcy. What they want, above all, is for the public to view the general election as a two-party race, with the Lib Dems and Ukip as sirens, luring in wasted votes and thereby abetting the real enemy.

How effective that combined effort will be depends on how bloody-minded people are feeling about politics in general. In 2010, the Tories were spooked by Nick Clegg’s sudden emergence from the first televised leaders’ debate as the candidate of political renewal – a mantle Cameron had hoped to wear. An aggressive campaign was launched, supported by Tory-leaning newspapers, to discredit the Lib Dem leader. It did not work, in so far as Cameron still failed to win a majority. Clegg was hobbled by the organisational incapacity of his party to capitalise on a surge of public interest, as much as by press vilification.

The Farage effect is partly analogous to Cleggmania, albeit played out over a longer timescale. Ukip’s appeal is the embittered, pessimistic inversion of the appeal that the Lib Dems once briefly had. Anti-politics is now soaking up the resentment caused by the coalition’s failure to deliver “new politics”. (And Ukip also attracts its share of former Lib Dem voters.) The Conservative newspapers are turning on Farage, which will hinder him, but not necessarily more than he will be hobbled by his own party’s institutional flakiness. Yet he doesn’t need to advance any further to alter the shape of British – or, more precisely, English – politics. That work is already done. Militant hostility to Britain’s membership of the EU and to immigration in general has infected mainstream opinion.

The threat that situation poses to Cameron lies in the electoral arithmetic – Ukip can cost him seats. For Miliband, it is a problem of momentum – Ukip has stolen his
insurgent thunder. The Tories spent too long chasing Ukip’s agenda; Labour spent too long ignoring it. Farage’s bubble will not suddenly burst. More likely, the air will seep out slowly over the coming year, by which time both Cameron’s and Miliband’s prospects of winning a majority may already be blown away.

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

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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