Two weeks ago, Roger Helmer of UKIP was trounced by the Conservative candidate at Newark. It seemed to go against everything the media has told us about the UKIP threat. Many had claimed the gains UKIP made in May would be transformed into a fourth party presence within Parliament.
This was not a claim of the right-wing press, or at least not just the right-wing press.
Even the BBC and the liberal broadsheets succumbed to this message. In late May, The Guardian reported a poll finding that 86% of those who voted for UKIP in the European elections said they would do so again in the 2015 General Election. The leap from 13 UKIP MEPs to 24 UKIP MEPs since 2009 set off the British media to announce their well-cooked conclusion: it’s a political earthquake.
The results are interesting. Labour came in second at 25.4% to UKIP came out with 27.5% of the vote, translating to about 9.3% of the electorate. The Conservatives fell by 4%, Liberal Democrats by over 6% and the BNP by 7%. UKIP increased its vote by more than 10%. The Green Party lost a little under 1% and gained three seats beating the Lib Dems with nearly 8% of the vote. Voter turnout was around 33.8% for the European elections. It goes without saying that the fringe right-wing parties do better out of low turnout. It was predictable that the ruling parties would face a drop in support.
At the local elections, UKIP’s vote fell from 22% to 17% and picked up 160 seats (but no councils) which was less than the Lib Dems who have been relegated politically toxic. UKIP may have eaten into the votes of Conservative candidates enough for them to lose overall control of several councils, but not enough to gain control of any councils itself. The media has claimed the results are ‘disastrous’ for Labour even though the Party gained 330 council seats and a net gain of five councils. The threat of UKIP is to establishment parties in its potential to divide the vote on sore issues like immigration. This matters as we’re about to go into an election. The Conservative Party have never fully recovered from the defeat inflicted on John Major, the worst since 1832, while Labour has still not filled the void leftover by Blairism.
Newark was not to be the first victory of the Farage Party. It should have been obvious from the beginning that the first seat in Parliament would not be offered to Roger Helmer with all of his obvious weak-spots. Helmer himself said that the absence of Farage hurt his chances in the by-election. It may have been a shrewd move by Farage to let Helmer take the fall on this occasion. He made it clear he had no interest in putting himself forward. Perhaps he had already gauged UKIP had little chance. Better to focus on the European and local elections, so let someone else test the waters for the UK Parliament. But that’s not where it ends.
The Contours of White Appeal
At the end of May, there was a revealing and small controversy over the tweets of UKIP Harrow chairman Jeremy Zeid. London was notably invulnerable to UKIP and Zeid was one of the candidates to be defeated. In his tweets Zeid bemoaned the ‘absence’ of white faces in Ilford and went on to claim that London is being “ethnically cleansed” of white people. He put the blame on the Labour Party. Perhaps Zeid imagines that New Labour’s immigration policy as a social engineering programme to flood the country with a new electorate to back whatever Labour wants. These are longstanding tropes of right-wing fantasy. Race-mixing with the aim of building socialism in one country. Alas, the Blairites had no such radical imagination.
During the debate held between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, the veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby asked “Do you consider the social impact of unlimited EU immigration to be positive or has it caused a damaging element of cultural segregation?” Nigel Farage charged immigration with ‘increasing segregation’ and ‘fundamentally’ changing Britain’s towns and cities. He went on to say “Worst of all, what it’s done socially, it has left I’m afraid the white working-class, yes, I know educationally, many have not done as well as we would like, but it has left the white working-class effectively as an under-class. And that I think is a disaster for our society.” Here Farage targets those who identify as ‘white’ and ‘working-class’ in the audience.
‘White’ being the lowest common denominator there is. The appeal to white racial consciousness is to those who have nothing else to cling onto. In the vast swathes of the country reduced to wastelands by Thatcherism, there are plenty of working-class people who feel marginalised. To advance a race-consciousness where class-consciousness is necessary holds obvious value for any reactionary party. The white race exists, if at all, definitely not in biological terms, it exists objectively as a formation of social control. Its shape is a multi-class formation. The problem is those external to its advantages, not the system in which we are all chained. In the words of Theodore W. Allen, “The white race is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration’.”
In using such words Farage attempted to bind the ‘white working-class’ to his party as a party of ‘white’ men standing up for themselves. Anyone who defends immigration can then be conceived of as a traitor. Nick Clegg was the perfect candidate with the long list of broken promises behind him. It was clear who was going to win the debate from the outset. Clegg could not rely on the strength of liberal ideas to triumph over the nationalist reaction. He had already conceded too much ground to the opposition. He trapped in the liberal-nationalist dichotomy permitted by the media and reinforced by the BBC and apparatchiks like Dimbleby. The only kind of opposition which can be levelled against UKIP properly would have to be levelled against the Establishment as well. And that is why the liberals are so complacent.
Farage as an Ultra-Rightist
The lexicon of the Left has always had a plethora of useful phrases. Lenin coined ‘ultra-leftism’ to designate those leftists who reach beyond the Left and, ultimately, undermine left-wing aims. It follows that there is such a thing as ultra-rightism. In many ways the Westboro Baptist Church in the US embodied ultra-rightism. Many LGBT activists believed that the notorious placard ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ was more of a help to the cause than a hindrance. There was no pretence of civility with the Westboro bunch, which the rest of the Christian Right has tried hard to maintain. It’s not hard to see how the zealotry of Fred Phelps and his flock has caused a lot of problems for American conservatives. Waving around placards, like ‘GOD LOVES DEAD SOLDIERS’, is hardly inspirational to the so-called ‘red states’.
Nigel Farage seems to occupy a similar space in UK politics. Certainly, the Conservative leadership understands the threat of UKIP in this framework. It threatens to undermine its electoral basis. As Paul Mason has highlighted, the Conservative Party is a social alliance between socially and economically liberal metropolitans and the socially conservative, anti-immigrant and anti-EU voters of the rural middle-classes. Likewise, the Labour Party is rooted in an alliance between a liberal salariat in the cities and a working-class base. In its nationalist appeal, UKIP challenges Labour where there remains, what Mason calls, “a residual white working-class culture”; all the while Farage threatens to convert socio-moral and hard Right conservatives from the Conservative Party.
The UK Independence Party itself is a coalition of nationalists, libertarians, and paleoconservatives. It’s not a straight fascist party like the BNP. UKIP has managed to gain greater respectability and coverage in mainstream affairs. Farage has been asked onto Question Time more often than any other politician in the last few years. The Party has drawn support from the reactionary press, explicitly in the case The Daily Express, from whence Farage plucked Patrick O’Flynn to stand as an MEP and UKIP’s Director of Communications. Ultra-right columnists such as Peter Hitchens and Simon Heffer have recommended UKIP to their readers as the necessary means to undermine the Conservative Party. In general the discourse surrounding certain issues has helped to maintain and spread a fervent base for a particular kind of anti-political populism.
The Flame of Thatcherism
As George Eaton has recorded in his blogging at the New Statesman, there have been signs since at least April 2014 that, UKIP are moving further leftwards on economic matters to seize the ground long abandoned by the Labour Party. Even in the run-up to the European elections Farage had been critical of zero-hour contracts. George Eaton refers us to an article Farage penned in the Express and corporations who “refuse to accept any social obligation towards loyal employees”.
On The Andrew Marr Show, Farage was asked about his convictions as an avowed Thatcherite and he distanced himself. “Thatcherism was of its time, 40 years ago, to deal with a specific set of problems. For half the country it benefited them, for the other half it didn’t.” Farage confirmed that the flat tax of 31%, claiming that the policy had been ‘badly explained’, as people “thought we were going to put tax up for the low-paid”. The UKIP leader went as far as to assert a commitment to low-taxes, as an incentive, for minimum wage-earners: “What I can tell you for certain is that our biggest tax objective in the next manifesto will be no tax on the minimum wage. You’ve got to incentivise people to get off benefits and get back to work. That will obviously cost money.”
The framework of these positions remains largely within the confines of conservative thought: ‘loyal’ employees, work not welfare, low taxes etc. The commitment to the 40% tax rate on high-incomes should not be mistaken as ‘progressive’, for it is a status quo commitment, it would still be a cut of 5%, and it is still a rate lower than it was in the Thatcher years. In the past, Farage has affirmed that the NHS should not be ring-fenced and, by implication, open to market forces and private companies. He told Norman Smith not long ago that he wants to see Britain “getting better value for money” from the NHS. Farage has withdrawn from this position in his interview with Marr.
It is likely that the UKIP machine-men have taken notice of the criticisms against their laissez-faire tastes – for health-care privatisation, abolishing maternity leave and sick pay – in the traditional Labour press. The Daily Mirror ran pieces on UKIP’s stances in the run up to the European and local elections. It is a vulnerable point for the Party in its bid to expand into serious influence. The small amount of coverage that these positions gained in the press (compared with their stances on immigration and plentiful scandals) may have helped to harden Labour support in the local elections.
Despite the media claims of a UKIP ‘earthquake’ the Party leadership will be quietly aware of the need to chip away at the Labour base. There is widespread support for the nationalisation of energy companies, the renationalisation of the railways, and a ban on zero-hours contract. It wouldn’t be surprising if the bulk of this support was concentrated in the North and the Midlands. In the same quarters, there is strong nationalist opposition to immigration and European integration, as well as a popular disdain for political-correctness, benefits scrounging, and multiculturalism. The UKIP leadership may be looking to siphon off support for Labour where the Conservatives have had little chance of gaining any ground whatsoever.
The real question is whether UKIP will be able to capitalise on the modest gains it has made and hold itself together with these electoral manoeuvres. This is at the same time that the Party will be up against the Conservatives and Labour. The threat is there and it has yet to be really seen what this means for future British politics. It is evident that the need for a radical opposition in the UK and the absence of such an opposition is at a dire point. The only force which could take the wind out of UKIP would have to challenge the Conservatives on the cuts and oppose the European austerity regime.