Faraging for votes among the discontented
The Left knows how to respond to movements that are clearly fascist, but how should it confront a populist party that exploits racism but presents itself as pro-democracy and anti-establishment? Don Flynn offers an approach
No one is proclaiming it out loud, but the whispering that goes on around the Westminster village suggests that they’ve already decided who is going to win the Euro-elections in May: UKIP. The key officials of the three main parties have all privately conceded that the right wing xenophobic party will be the biggest winner in the 2014 European Parliamentary poll.
Some of the lack of urgency about this outcome is precisely because each of the mainstream party outfits can see either some positive advantage coming from it or at least a clear way to make the best of a bad job. Labour rejoices in the fact that voter defection to UKIP will hurt the Tories more than it hurts them. The Lib Dems hope that the enthusiasm for anti-European policies will turn into bitterness some time before the really important general election in May 2015, when errant voters realise just what a nutty bunch Mr Farage and his followers really are. Even in Tory ranks, there is no shortages of dissidents who hope that Cameron will be punished for clinging on to the coalition and keeping them out of the ministerial posts they crave. A big vote for UKIP will give them the chance to say, “We told you so.”
But outside the gilded ranks of mainstream insiders – also known as the real world – the prospect of seeing the largest share of the popular vote going to right-wing hardliners is not viewed with such equanimity. There are many dangers, and it is important that socialists do some hard thinking about what is in prospect in the event that UKIP win the majority share of the vote they crave.
What does UKIP represent as a political formation at this moment? We must not make the mistake of seeing the party as coming from the fascist tradition, which is more clearly the case with the BNP and its Hitler-birthday celebrating cadre. The more explicitly authoritarian political project has floundered since the 2010 election, due partly to the success of fragments of the left to mount a challenge to the Griffin party’s strategy of forging a populist image for itself, but also, more crucially in the long run, from the fact that the prospect of a revived corporate state lacks any significant backing from within the forces of capital.
UKIP is addressing different needs, which have grown out of the sense of crisis that the British (more properly, English) ruling elite feel in relation to the bonds they have with ordinary citizens: the symptoms of the erosion of trust between – and the imagery in this case is quite appropriate – the “man in the pub” and the chaps who go along to Westminster to represent him; the decline in membership of all the main parties; the high levels of abstentionism on polling days; the scandals over cash-for-questions and expense account fiddling; as well as the growing sense that the Westminster parties are all the same – have contributed to a growing instability of parliamentary government, where elections produce less decisive results and weaker, coalition-style administrations.
UKIP’s response draws energy from the disillusionment with the parties and their personalities, but goes further to critique the type of society the UK has become. The mix of themes that form the UKIP world view will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched its leader, Nigel Farage, appear on the BBC’s Question Time. Brussels Eurocrats calling the shots; liberal political correctness crowding the political and business agenda with talk of rights for women, ethnic minorities and gays; the displacement of the sort of views held by chaps in the golf club bar as the lodestone for the direction governments ought to be taking the country – all this peppers the narrative of a personality (politician is not the right word for Farage) who wants to restore the ancient order of British democracy, rather than overthrow it.
This has implications for the way the left should confront UKIP’s challenge. The party is not fielding squads of street fighters out to kick their way to power in the manner of the Italian fascisti or the German Brownshirts, but works instead through the media and right-wing networks that extend into the Conservative party to increase the sense that the old parties have got it all wrong. They claim to believe they have a strategy that will allow them to progress to power by winning arguments and displacing the old parties. Whilst many of the naive people who have been drawn into its orbit might believe this to be a plausible objective, the more realistic prospect is that UKIP activism will impact on the established order of British politics, pushing it even further to the right, but keeping the system firmly on its parliamentary foundations.
The business of electoral arithmetic imposes itself here, which will be preoccupying the thinking of the party managers as we move closer to the general election scheduled for May 2015. There are 108 marginal constituencies across the country, where the issue of who governs the country will be decided. In each one, the incumbent holds the seat with a majority of 6% or less. One blogger on the ConservativeHome website argues that UKIP will have a major say in 53 of these seats, based on its share of vote in the 2010 general election.
All but five of these battleground seats are straight fights between Labour and the Tories, with an exact split – 24 each – between the two, in terms of the number of MPs they currently have. The two largest parties will be tempted to deal with the matter by competing for the voters who went with UKIP in 2010.
Modern election campaigning is not inclined to leave the outcomes of such important battles to the chance that party machines at the local level are well-oiled and capable of getting their messages across alone. If a close campaign means that the leaders will be going all out to win the favours of the people of Fluffborough Central, then you can be sure that will be reflected in the key statements going out in the daily media briefings and the political broadcasts. By these means, the tone and content of the entire national campaign becomes dragged on to the terrain of the anti-immigrant, xenophobic hard right.
The tone of UKIP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric often seems slippery enough to wriggle free of the accusation of out-and-out racism. The party stormed into a position which threatened both Conservative and Liberal Democratic hopes of winning the famous Eastleigh by-election last February, with claims that millions of Romanians and Bulgarians were planning to come to the UK with the lifting of the restrictions on them taking employment here in January 2014. On the face of it, this was an immigration scare story par excellence. But Farage has a few more tricks in his bag, which are intended to counter the view that his party is out-and-out racist. Part of its claim to have an alternative to the European Union lies with efforts to project the idea that the Commonwealth represents an alternative bloc for trade and commerce. A Farage article on UKIP’s website entitled, “Why the Commonwealth matters more now than ever”, tells us that it is a “club” of nations “where all member states share not only a common history forged by war and peace in the 19th and 20th centuries but also common values and practices that set us apart from the rest of the world.”
Canny enough to show that his chums are not just the Aussies and the Canadians, Farage alights on India as the exemplar of the country sharing this common history and values, praising its position, saying that as “the 7th largest nation in the world with a population of over 1.2 billion people, as of 2009 [it] enjoyed just a 2% share of global GDP by market exchange rates yet with economic growth hitting almost 7% annually this will have risen to 13% by 2050, second only to China and USA.”
Most surprising of all, to some at least, was his response to the “Go Home” poster vans unleashed by the UK Border Force on the people of six London boroughs in the summer of 2013 (all chosen it seems to patrol streets with the highest proportion of UKIP voters in the capital city). Farage condemned the initiative as “nasty” and Big Brother-like ,and implied that his party would never stoop so low.
But this clever feint towards liberal distaste enabled him to make another point: that the real problem with the message on the vans was misguided because the problem had less to do with “illegal” migration, which took place on a negligible scale anyway, and side-stepped the really important issue that the UK was about to grant the right of legal migration to 28 million Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.
Chameleon-like UKIP is able to switch its message hither and thither; sometimes appearing as the real champions of a Britain at ease in the multicultural Commonwealth club, but then switching to ram home a statement, which again draws on the sense of threat that can only come from having to deal with foreigners. It puts itself in a position where it can draw in Bangladeshis and Nepalis as people who belong in its big tent (as it was able to do in Eastleigh and in some west London constituencies) but only to turn them against Romanians and Poles.
How does the left deal with UKIP’s role as such a surprise package, weaving ways of looking at the political world that promise a “return” to the stability and certainties that supposedly existed when the right type of people were running the show? Insistence on a No Platform approach will be difficult to maintain when, unlike the case of the BNP, the accused can claim that they represent a view of the world as likely to be held by Asian shopkeepers as the solicitors and estate agents who make up the scrimmage pack of the local rugby team. Those UKIP candidates who slip out of what will be the tight leash of the Farageite party managers and stray on to the terrain of unabashed xenophobia will deserve to be given a tough time on the hustings, but more will be needed.
The immediate prospect for a challenge to UKIP will have to involve solid work to challenge the party’s record in the areas where they have won elections and can be represented as political insiders, rather than the rebels they claim to be. The work of VoteWatch Europe (www.VoteWatch.eu) allows people to check the record of UKIP’s 11 representatives in the European Parliament and to challenge the image they project for themselves as doughty fighters for the little person.
But, more generally, the left has to consider where it stands in relation to the populist critique of the establishment that UKIP represents. It carries power because elements of it are so obviously correct – parliamentary democracy has reached its limit as providing a means in which power can be possessed and exercised by ordinary citizens – but its remedies are so obviously way off.
The best way for the left to challenge UKIP will be for it to show that its own analysis of what is wrong with how the world is set up today is not only much more profound, but explains far better the predicament of people trying to live on their wages. Most importantly, we need to convey the obvious fact that the aspirations of the socialist left go far beyond simply wanting to manage the system, and are instead aiming to bring about its fundamental transformation.
UKIP’s chameleon-like nature takes it beyond a place where it can be fenced in and reduced by militant anti-fascist campaigning. It exists because the ancien regime in the UK is in such a deep state of crisis, extending from the economic crisis to the way the ruling elites have governed us in the conditions of parliamentary democracy. Tackling UKIP means nothing less than coming up with a rigorously democratic and socialist response to the totality of that crisis, and doing it soon.