For most of its existence, Ukip has positioned itself well to the right of the Conservative Party on the economy, advocating a radically smaller state, significantly lower taxes and a major programme of deregulation (albeit not in the area of immigration). But as the party rises to greater prominence, it is beginning to moderate its stance.
In a piece for the Daily Express on Friday, Nigel Farage echoed Labour’s criticisms of zero-hour contracts and called for larger employers to sign “a tough code of conduct as to how they are applied.” While stating that he has no “truck with militant trade unionism”, he also took aim at “over-mighty corporations” who “refuse to accept any social obligation towards loyal employees”.
This intervention is part of a pattern of economic populism from Ukip. As Alex Wickham of Guido Fawkes notes, the party campaigned during the recent Wythenshawe by-election to “protect your benefits” and has declared its opposition to the bedroom tax. Farage has also abandoned Ukip’s previous policy of a flat tax of 31 per cent, arguing that higher earners should pay at least 40 per cent.
These stances will antagonise the party’s sizeable libertarian wing but they are politically astute. Far from craving a laissez-faire approach, most of the party’s supporters favour an expanded state and higher public spending. Polling by YouGov shows that 78 per cent support the nationalisation of the energy companies and 73 per cent back the renationalisation of the railways. Rather than a “code of conduct” for employers, 57 per cent simply want zero-hour contracts to be banned. Rather than a flat tax, the same number support the reintroduction of the 50p rate.
Given Ukip’s success in attracting working class supporters, it makes no sense for the party to alienate them by adopting a programme of turbo-Thatcherism. In this era of insecurity, there is a large market for a party that combines hostility towards the EU and immigration with a critical stance towards big business. As Farage and his allies know, it is this approach that has enabled the Front National to achieve such success in France.
Wary of attacking Ukip over its immigration stance, Labour has recently focused on campaigning against its free market policies. But if the party’s drift to the left continues, it will become much harder to do so.
Update: Here’s the statement put out by Labour’s Jon Ashworth on the launch of Ukip’s European election campaign. Unsurprisingly, it focuses on attacking the party over its economic positions, rather than the EU or immigration.
UKIP would have us believe they stand for working people but the truth is very different – they’re even more right wing than the Tories. A vote for UKIP is a vote for higher taxes for working families, charges to see your GP, huge tax giveaways for the rich and even deeper cuts to public services. Only Labour can make Britain better off.