The UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) gains in the recent local elections have generated a good deal of media attention as well as exercising some of the liveliest minds in the main political parties. It’s perhaps not surprising to see the Tories panicked reaction to the opening up of an old wound around Europe, but Labour, and indeed, the Lib Dems, both have reasons to worry about the potential threat that Farage’s party might pose. Similarly, a range of political commentators have been trying to unravel the reasons behind UKIP’s dramatic increase in support as well as speculating on whether the party has the ability to sustain their recent achievements into the forthcoming European and, ultimately, general elections.
In relation to the first of these issues, much of the discussion around UKIP’s rise has emphasised the anger that substantial numbers of voters now feels towards the political class as a whole. The MP’s expenses scandal has been the most obvious feature in an increasingly poisonous climate of distrust and cynicism, which views politicians of all colours as an out of touch elite that is far removed from, and largely unconcerned with, the everyday struggles of ‘ordinary people’. What UKIP offers here, so the story goes, is a stick with which to bash the major parties. One might legitimately wonder how Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, is meant to fill this gap! However, the fact that UKIP isn’t tainted by past ‘indiscretions’, and remains an unknown quantity in terms of practical government, means that it has been able to effectively portray itself as a challenge to the establishment.
There is some degree of truth in the argument that UKIP’s appeal is partly about punishing the mainstream political parties. A recent Guardian/ICM poll noted an ‘unprecedented’ shift as both the government and opposition lost votes to UKIP, again indicating a general sense of disillusionment with the current political system. However, what I want to focus on here is not simply the factors that ‘push’ people away from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats but also the ‘pull’ factors that attract people to UKIP and their (admittedly hazy) policy proposals.
While there has been a lot said about UKIP in general, we know relatively little about their supporters or what motivates them. As Rob Ford recently observed, two of the most popular assumptions about UKippers are that they are traditional Tories, and they have simply found a new home for their anti-European sensibilities. This is wrong on both counts. First, rather than appealing to the relatively affluent, middle-class, home-owning constituencies of classic Torydom, UKIP ‘draws support most strongly from blue-collar workers, council house tenants, and voters on low and insecure incomes’. Again, this is why the UKIP’s recent surge has generated such interest, as they are not only cutting into some of the Conservatives heartlands but also beginning to attract the traditional Labour voters who no longer feel that the party represents their views.
In the second case, Europe is not the issue that exercises UKIP supporters. Indeed, recent research carried out by the Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft, paints a very interesting picture of their major concerns and this ties in with other academic research on the attitudes and experiences of ‘ordinary people’ in England. While Ashcroft’s research is obviously designed with a particular aim in mind, the study of UKIP supporters - including a survey of 20,000, and 14 focus groups - represents the most complete picture we have of this new phenomenon. Second, the fact that it replicates so closely the findings of other research (Mann & Fenton, 2009, Skey, 2010, Garner, 2010, Mann, 2011, Leddy-Owen, 2012, Kenny, 2012) makes it particularly valuable in making sense of the current political landscape in Britain.
As Ashcroft’s report notes, UKIP supporters list immigration as their primary concern, but ‘are driven towards UKIP by a deeper unease simply with the way life has changed in modern Britain’. Interestingly, this sense of unease is not necessarily evidenced in relation to work or the economy, as one might imagine, but picks up on a whole host of everyday activities that emphasise the ways in which the ‘majority’s’ position within the nation is being challenged.
‘…. schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; ... All of these examples, real and imagined, were [used] … to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority’
What is particularly striking about these features is that they unerringly replicate my own, and others, research on the ‘ethnic majority’ in England. This is a group of people who articulate a more secure sense of belonging to the nation, which is defined in relation to ethnic minorities. Majoritarian belonging is bound up in narratives of ancestry, ethnicity and place and is in turn used to underpin powerful claims to key social, economic and cultural resources. In other words, there is a strong link between belonging and entitlement, so that ‘I belong more than you’ also means ‘I deserve more than you’.
The second crucial point to make is that this sense of entitlement isn’t only linked to material benefits (housing, welfare, jobs) but also less tangible psycho-social benefits, such as the power to make judgements about the behaviour of ‘others’, the right to feel comfortable and secure in a particular place and the ability to be understood, and understand others, in a relatively trouble free manner. These features are much more difficult to define, without descending into slightly obscure academic jargon, but the sociologist Anthony Giddens’ writing around ‘ontological security’ offers a useful starting point.
Ontological security ‘refers to the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action’. Put simply, it concerns the issue of whether I, as an individual, can rely on things – people, objects, places, meanings – remaining tomorrow as they were today and the day before. Using these discussions as a template, I’ve argued that one key source of ontological security for substantial numbers, in places like Britain, is the idea of living in and belonging to a nation. Moreover, this sense of security is predicated upon a range of familiar and largely taken for granted places, institutions, everyday practices and forms of knowledge that make the world seem more meaningful and manageable.
Using this approach, we can begin to make sense of the unease that substantial numbers continue to articulate concerning the changing face of British society and, moreover, why these anxieties focus on what might seem to be trivial or sometimes imagined issues. For instance, concerns over the right to celebrate Christmas or fly the English flag seem rather puzzling when subject to any concerted scrutiny, as there is very little evidence that these activities have ever been proscribed. Yet tabloid reports and other forms of apocryphal story-telling seem to resonate because they chime with people’s everyday experiences, including, to take some examples from my own research; the sound of foreign voices in local spaces, the presence of halal butchers and East European shops on the high street, non-Christian religious dress and observance, signs written in languages other than English and visible support for foreign sports teams (including those who compete against England). These features, which are seen to demonstrate the increasing power and agency of ‘other’ people in turn inform a (perceived) loss of status, privilege and control for those who consider themselves to be at the centre of national life and, hence, the arbiters of national territory and culture.
Now, we don’t have to agree with these hierarchies of belonging and entitlement. Often, they are predicated upon racist categories and generate forms of exclusion that should be condemned in any civilised society. However, if we want to understand why immigration continues to register as such an important issue for so many people, as well as the rise of parties such as UKIP, then we need to acknowledge the status of the ethnic majority and how wider social transformations may be undermining a valued sense of self, agency and community - notably for those faced with profound challenges in other areas of their lives.
In reflecting on UKIP’s future, then, we can say with some degree of certainty that the issues that generate support for populist parties of the centre/right will continue for some time to come, at least among more insecure members of the ethnic majority. Yet this will not be enough to ensure UKIP’s success longer-term. First, the current electoral system works against smaller parties so that it is extremely difficult for them to get MP’s elected to Wesminster. Second, voters are far cannier than some political pundits assume. Voters understand the significance of the electoral cycle and the difference between local, European and general elections.
They also understand that a populist agenda doesn’t translate into decent policy or even decent politicians. A group of men I spoke to in the north-east of England were a natural constituency for the BNP in terms of their outlook, and readily admitted as much. They were vehemently opposed to actually voting for the BNP because they considered them to be a rabble and unfit for any political position. Therefore the local and European elections can be seen as a testing ground for the abilities of UKIP politicians to get things done. Given their relative lack of experience, both as individuals and in building an effective party machine, this is likely to be a considerable challenge.
And what of the other political parties? The political landscape in Britain, as elsewhere, is fragmenting. Overall, Britain is becoming a more diverse and socially tolerant place. But an emphasis on super-diversity in the main urban centres overlooks the degree to which many parts of the country remain fairly homogeneous, notably in terms of ethnicity. Likewise, the general shift to more tolerant attitudes towards ‘other’ people, particularly among the young, underplays the persistent feelings of anxiety and resentment among those whose sense of self, community and place continues to be bound up with more exclusive definitions of nationhood.
Managing these trends will be a particular problem for the two main parties. As Lord Ashcroft observes, if the Tories attempt to pander to the substantial numbers who share UKIP’s ‘outlook’ concerning the demise of Britain, and their own place within the nation, then they risk alienating both ethnic minorities and members of the majority who have a far more open attitude towards questions of (national) belonging. Labour might be expected to mop up the votes of these latter groups but whether they would be enough to counter the potential loss of disenchanted working-class voters is another matter entirely. What both parties cannot do is pretend that this is only about Europe and involves an insignificant minority of ‘loons’ or ‘fruitcakes’. UKIP are the product of a country that is unable to have a clear, open and honest debate about why it has become more anxious, insecure and unequal over the past 30 years and, ultimately, where it is headed over the next 30.