Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP who defected to UKIP. Wikimedia: Stephen Punter
The astonishing progress of UKIP in two recent Westminster by-elections is the most serious warning so far that the political elite has lost its touch and appears to simply not care about the voters. The landslide victory in the Tory seat of Clacton was expected from the day the by-election was called (we should all be asking why, not just accepting its inevitability). But more important was the party’s near victory in a supposedly safe Labour seat on the same day against opinion polls which predicted a big majority for Labour, and the discussions between UKIP and a sitting Labour MP about possible defection: this is the eleventh hour reminder to the left and progressive politics - that UKIP is being allowed to steal some of the most important weapons in the progressive armoury, and Labour seem powerless, unwilling and inactive in response.
The fast pace of events and the continuing inability of the political class to respond will mean that no amount of retreat into smears and fearmongering will now stem that tide in the long and tortuous run-up to next year’s general election, another gift to UKIP. The main parties have conspired to create (and above all build) this new third force in English politics - the Tories by simply ignoring the concerns of their voters under Cameron and his predecessors, and Labour by its paralysed inability to respond to UKIP in the hope it can just coast through to victory and also following the Tory strategy in regard to its core vote.
Comparing the two victory speeches at the by-elections is interesting. UKIP slashed a 6,000 Labour majority to just over 600 in the supposedly safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton, and the Labour winner, Liz McInnes, simply shouted the kind of party sloganeering with the obligatory praise for party leader Miliband which could have been written for her by party HQ. Carswell for UKIP on the other hand in Clacton gave a thoughtful and ruefully well-received-by-all warning to ‘bankers and Westminster’ that ‘crony corporatism’ was not what the voters wanted, nor the ‘cosy cartel politics’ and the negative campaigning and ruthless smears by the Westminster machine of anyone who opposed. His speech struck the chord. It was not the speech of an extremist, very far from it.
A simple examination of the issues surrounding the protection of the NHS lays bare the dangers to Labour from UKIP. At its conference in late September, UKIP made it quite clear – the party is to work with the trade union Unite in opposing the inclusion of the NHS in TTIP (the secretive proposed transatlantic trade agreement). This was not some weasel worded statement which you expect from the main parties about ‘working with partners and stakeholders to ensure the best outcome for the NHS’ etc. It was a noisy and passionate defence of the NHS, by a party whose membership and voters are among the NHS’ strongest supporters. And an unusual commitment to support the campaign of another organisation, with all that that implies and carries by way of dangers.
This has wrong-footed the political class and the partisan commentators to such a degree that they have responded yet again with a patronising and inept failure to understand the nature of UKIP and the degree to which the party membership genuinely believes in such a stance, and how it has always been inevitable that a big part of its programme would encompass support for measures which might be described as left wing. They have all had plenty of warning.
Early last year, David Owen challenged all the political parties over TTIP and the NHS in a thoughtful piece for OpenDemocracy. He specifically and shrewdly included UKIP in this challenge. A few weeks later, in a subsequent piece for OpenDemocracy I referred indeed to the TTIP agreement and said: “Speak to some senior UKIP members about the articles on openDemocracy referring to the US-EU trading agreement and the dangers it represents to the NHS, and there is absolutely no difference between their views and that of the contributors here - these cannot be described as right wing. Ask the membership themselves at a UKIP conference to sign a petition about this and you would probably obtain a majority of the attendees' support.” It is now party policy to oppose the inclusion of the NHS, and anyone who researches the party, like Ford & Goodwin in their recent studies, or reports on it properly and with thought, will not be in the least bit surprised.
You see no thought given to the shades of grey and intriguing possibilities of UKIP in the partisan press commentary, in the few places where it was even mentioned. The personalised attack on the UKIP spokesperson Louise Boors in this piece sounds like the comment of a metropolitan elitist who really wanted to say “there was this ghastly LOUD regional woman who had the temerity to get up and talk about this. I mean, the cheek. She’s not even a member of the club”. Elsewhere, it was a simple failure to even accurately report, where for example ITV almost comically claims, days after the conference, that protestors demonstrated against ‘UKIP’s silence over the TTIP’! UKIP was, of course, the only party to actually come out and oppose the NHS inclusion as specific party policy at its conference and the only one of the main four to support the Unite campaign.
Interestingly, it is in the US media where the matter has really been reported in any way, and one line has appeared over and over again in much of the TV commentary I have seen while in the US – speaking of Vince Cable who has defended TTIP, UKIP’s Boors said:
"Personally I am inclined to believe health professionals on this issue more than the former Chief Economist of a huge multi-national corporation, who is used to putting profit before health."
In the lazy narrative, UKIP is supposed to be ‘the Tea Party full of billionaires’ so even if it were to announce full scale renationalisation, any report would somehow jam what was announced into a cliché of what the broadcaster or newspaper wanted the story to be. The trap for the metropolitan political class of course is to think that this approach will still work on the voters. And the real reason why it will not work is because, whatever the average voter thinks of UKIP, it is now even more wary of the promises of the big parties. Particularly in areas like the NHS. The April 2014 piece in OpenDemocracy by Kailash Chand OBE sums it up, the title “New Labour began dismantling of the NHS”. It guarantees that no amount of the party faithful shouting with relief after a narrow by-election win will reassure the voters that the NHS is safe in Labour hands. And of course Linda Kaucher’s insight about the NHS and TTIP in April 2014.
It smacks of desperation now to accuse UKIP of opportunism (for advocating what the vast majority of its members and voters want). A sizeable body of voters has stopped listening to the establishment and its mouthpieces.
It was interesting even over a decade ago that UKIP had a tendency to drift leftwards, and it was commented upon internally even while I was in the party and on its NEC (1997 to 2006). From my own experience of being elected the London Assembly, I made the point earlier this year on OpenDemocracy of my own surprise at the degree to which, while elected, my colleague Peter Hulme Cross and I often opposed the establishment in areas where they were threatening civil liberties and workers’ rights. It wasn’t for show, we felt very awkward doing it, but we just felt we were right.
And surely this is a liberating opportunity for progressive politics. At present, many Labour voters remain loyal simply because of a tribal belief that “at least a Labour government would be better than the present one”. Simply returning to the example of the NHS and TTIP, it is a powerful argument for the irritated left that “if even UKIP can openly support Unite and say the NHS has to be completely excluded, period, why can’t we?” Does the left not fear that Labour in office will simply retreat into sophistry and hide behind supposed ‘reassurances’ from the EU Chief Negotiator (which appear to be almost meaningless)? This surely is how it is lining up. What are ‘safeguards’?
Therefore, a better strategy would surely be for those wanting the exclusion of the NHS to take the UKIP support at its face value. And extravagantly use it as a lever to get what you want from your own chosen party. Grudging tribal attempts to downplay it, out of embarrassment that “our people” are not supporting the campaign, but that “this awful lot are”, are a terrible strategic mistake. And are more likely to mean that progressives will be forced to use tortuous logic to justify the likely eventual sell-out. UKIP has developed this policy as a result of lobbying by progressive forces over the past year. There is a lesson there for those who want to see an end to the hated ‘crony corporatism’ mentioned by Douglas Carswell, but seemingly at present supported by all three of the ‘main’ parties.
David Cameron made the same strategic error when he casually defamed anyone who voted UKIP in a not-too-bright claim that they were ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, and then again when commentator Matthew Parris suggested, during the by-election campaign in a now notorious article in the Times, that “The Tories should turn their backs on Clacton’.
By now, almost everyone in the UK knows a friend who votes, or has voted, UKIP. Almost without fail, they know them not to be what the Westminster smear machines claim them to be. It is counterproductive, therefore, to carry on smearing.
During the European Elections campaign, I was called by many journalists who wanted me (as a former senior party member, former vice chair, leadership candidate, elected member of the London Assembly and NEC member for a turbulent decade) to slag off the party and particularly its leader. I was even offered inducements. And it has happened since as well, journalists and broadcasters planning to try and attack the party and wanting assistance with their “journalism”. What struck me most of all was that the sheer volume of negative smearing now has very little effect on those committed to vote UKIP, and an ever lessening impact on voters of other parties.
As the main parties have a fair degree of control over the BBC through the shadowy political arrangements at the UK’s state radio and TV network, their best hope is to enlist the BBC and one of its flagship programmes to re-hash old stories to attack the party and in particular Nigel Farage: but even that will probably be counter-productive unless it really does appear to contain anything other than old news dressed up by way of devices and clever graphics, with the obligatory faces from the past anxious to wield a wobbly ageing axe. When you tell journalists that you will discuss only politics and policies, in which there is indeed a fairly major story, their eyes glaze over: actual politics is boring to them – all they want is fuel for personalised attacks, soundbites from credible figures from the past to back up the smears.
It could be yet another own goal by the establishment, setting in chain a rare and determined unity at exactly the right time, further defections and greater sympathy for the party. It is surely time for the main parties to be honest and frank with the voters about what they will and will not/can and cannot do (through, for example, their determination to remain in the EU). And to take UKIP seriously and hold it to account properly over its strategy to take the UK out of the EU, and in other policy areas. Otherwise the Establishment will simply fuel the advance of the third force to a situation where it will make a major breakthrough in 2015. A seven month campaign littered with disaster for the main parties and wrong moves by the Establishment offers unlimited opportunities for UKIP. But also for the progressive view of the world if it takes up the challenge. ‘Crony corporatism’ next anyone?
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