Not just for the right: Nigel Farage celebrates with local councillors in South Ockenden, 23 May. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour must find a way of speaking to the “left behind”

Any lazy assumptions a strong Ukip would work in Labour’s favour will have been dispelled by the results, which showed the purple party racking up votes deep inside Labour’s northern heartlands.

Launching Ukip’s manifesto in April, Nigel Farage promised that the elections of 22 May would represent “such a shock in the British political system that it will be nothing short of an earthquake”. In one way, at least, he delivered. Not since the emergence of Labour has a new British political party succeeded in topping a national poll.

However, while the ground is shaking beneath us, the cause of the tremors is not yet clear. Mr Farage has been keen to cast the result as an endorsement of his party’s best-known policies: evidence that the public wants an end to our membership of the European Union and to the open borders that come with it. The sort of Conservatives who have long supported such policies anyway have largely agreed.

Yet this looks like an oversimplification. The rise of Ukip has coincided with a notable increase in support for Britain’s EU membership. And there are swaths of Ukip’s domestic policies – abolishing employment rights, privatising the NHS – which have the backing of only the tiniest share of the British electorate. Whatever else the Farage insurgency represents, it is not a simple lurch to the right.

If the Conservative Party is at risk of wishful thinking, Labour is at risk of complacency. Before the election, the party’s leadership was strangely in favour of Ukip: a divided left had helped hamper Labour in the 1980s, the thinking went, so a divided right could help hamper the Tories today. Yet any lazy assumptions that a strong Ukip would work in Labour’s favour will have been dispelled quickly by the results, which showed the purple party racking up votes deep inside Labour’s northern heartlands.

If Mr Farage’s earthquake is neither a surge in Euroscepticism nor a Tory civil war, it is tempting to conclude that it is something altogether darker. The party’s campaign, after all, traded shamelessly on disquiet about immigrants. Many of its chosen candidates have expressed views in public that are racist, homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise expose their discomfort with anyone who is not a straight white man. Such views were covered extensively in the media but with little obvious impact on Ukip’s poll rating. It is possible that Mr Farage’s achievement was simply to repackage prejudice in a form that was no longer taboo to Middle England. There is, however, one other possibility: that Ukip has
genuinely tapped into a section of the electorate that does not feel represented by the existing parties. Most of the geographic areas where the party has had the greatest success share certain characteristics. They are economically depressed and often far from the centres of economic activity. Their elderly populations are unusually large; their graduates unusually few. Most noticeably, they are overwhelmingly white.

Ukip’s voters, in other words, are drawn largely from the section of society that feels left behind: those to whom free trade and ethnic diversity represent not opportunity and vibrancy, but a stark economic threat.

Once upon a time, this was a section of the electorate that could rely on Labour and the trade union movement to speak up on its behalf. Now, their voices go largely unheard. Mr Farage can cheerfully suggest that things were better in the old days because, to his supporters, they were.

The probability is that, following the recent results, the mainstream parties will attempt to compete for those voters once again – but the danger is that they will do so not by challenging the Ukip line but by pandering to it. Over the next year, MPs from the three existing parties will likely compete to see who can be most xenophobic, most anti-immigrant, most anti-modernist, without quite tipping over into outright racism. It will not be an edifying sight.

This is precisely the wrong response. Our leaders should be working out how to spread the proceeds of growth and the benefits of modernity more fairly among the population: to ensure that those who have lost out in the past 30 years do not lose out in the next 30. That is a big ask. Far easier to blame outsiders than to reform institutions – far easier to talk about immigration than to talk about class.

Next year’s general election is likely to be the most unpredictable in a generation: with a fourth party, potentially competitive in both north and south, the political map will change in ways few can yet foresee. Yet if there is one prediction that can be safely made it is that we have not seen the last of the politics of fear.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Will the collapse of the EU/Canada trade deal speed the demise of Jean-Claude Juncker?

The embattled European Comission President has already survived the migrant crisis and Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled President of the European Commission, is likely to come under renewed pressure to resign later this week now that the Belgian region of Wallonia has likely scuppered the EU’s flagship trade deal with Canada.

The rebellious Walloons on Friday blocked the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The deal for 500 million Europeans was at the final hurdle when it fell, struck down by an administration representing 3.2 million people.

As Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, walked out of talks in tears and declared the deal dead, fingers were pointed at Juncker. Under pressure from EU governments, he had agreed that CETA would be a “mixed agreement”. He overruled the executive’s legal advice that finalising the deal was in the Commission’s power.

CETA now had to be ratified by each member state. In the case of Belgium, it means it had to be approved by each of its seven parliaments, giving the Walloons an effective veto.

Wallonia’s charismatic socialist Minister-President Paul Magnette needed a cause celebre to head off gains made by the rival Marxist PTB party. He found it in opposition to an investor protection clause that will allow multinationals to sue governments, just a month after the news that plant closures by the world’s leading heavy machinery maker Caterpillar would cost Wallonia 2,200 jobs.

Juncker was furious. Nobody spoke up when the EU signed a deal with Vietnam, “known the world over for applying all democratic principles”, he sarcastically told reporters.

“But when it comes to signing an agreement with Canada, an accomplished dictatorship as we all know, the whole world wants to say we don’t respect human right or social and economic rights,” he added.  

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to sign CETA, which is backed by all EU leaders.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, has today spoken to Trudeau and his visit is currently scheduled to go ahead. This morning, the Walloons said they would not be held to ransom by the “EU ultimatum”.

If signed, CETA will remove customs duties, open up markets, and encourage investment, the Commission has said. Losing it will cost jobs and billions in lost trade to Europe’s stagnant economy.

“The credibility of Europe is at stake”, Tusk has warned.

Failure to deliver CETA will be a serious blow to the European Union and call into question the European Commission’s exclusive mandate to strike trade deals on behalf of EU nations.

It will jeopardise a similar trade agreement with the USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commission claims that an “ambitious” TTIP could increase the size of the EU economy by €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP).

The Commission has already missed its end of year deadline to conclude trade talks with the US. It will now have to continue negotiations with whoever succeeds Obama as US President.

And if the EU cannot, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, get a deal with Canada done, how will it manage if the time comes to strike a similar pact with a "hard Brexit" Britain?

Juncker has faced criticism before.  After the Brexit referendum, the Czechs and the Poles wanted him gone. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban muttered darkly about “personnel issues” at the Commission.

In July, it was reported that Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, was plotting to oust Juncker. Merkel stayed her hand, and with German elections looming next year is unlikely to pull the trigger now.

When he took office in November 2014, Juncker promised that his administration would be a “political Commission”. But there has never been any sign he would be willing to bear the political consequences of his failures.

Asked if Juncker would quit after Brexit, the Commission’s chief spokesman said, “the answer has two letters and the first one is ‘N’”.

Just days into his administration, Juncker was embroiled in the LuxLeaks scandal. When he was Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, the country had struck sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies.  

Despite official denials, rumours about his drinking and health continue to swirl around Brussels. They are exacerbated by bizarre behaviour such as kissing Belgium’s Charles Michel on his bald head and greeting Orban with a cheery “Hello dictator”!

On Juncker’s watch, border controls have been reintroduced in the once-sacrosanct Schengen passport-free zone, as the EU struggles to handle the migration crisis.

Member states promised to relocate 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece across the bloc by September 2017. One year on, just 6,651 asylum seekers have been re-homed.

All this would be enough to claim the scalp of a normal politician but Juncker remains bulletproof.

The European Commission President can, in theory, only be forced out by the European Parliament, as happened to Jacques Santer in 1999.

The European Parliament President is Martin Schulz, a German socialist. His term is up for renewal next year and Juncker, a centre-right politician, has already endorsed its renewal in a joint interview.

There is little chance that Juncker will be replaced with a leader more sympathetic to the British before the Brexit negotiations begin next year.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.