Nigel Farage. Flickr/European Parliament
If ever there was a moment which summed up the failure of almost all the establishment to understand UKIP and the reasons for its support, it was the moment after the first broadcast debate between the pro-EU Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Almost the entire claque of political commentators left and right reckoned on a snap herd statement that Clegg had “won” the debate for viewers. Hard on the heels of their assessments came a YouGov poll, which had not been flagged up to them, showing that it was Farage who was judged by the public to have comfortably won the debate. Such an endorsement in a referendum would have been described by the media as a ‘landslide’. Even a substantial minority of Lib Dem voters thought Farage had won, where almost no UKIP voters thought the other way.
Some--if not all--of the judgments made by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in a new book, ‘Revolt on the right: explaining support for the radical right in Britain’, begin the process of unravelling these confusions, even if the title itself might be said to add to them. It is required reading for all journalists who might not yet grasp that, this time, UKIP will probably not go back into its traditional half-decade-long post-Euro Elections slumber, and that it is drawing its support from areas which have never really been considered outside of the party. It is also required reading for all UKIP activists and supporters, in spite of its high price tag and in spite of the fact that they will find a lot to disagree with in the book. And the content, if not the title, reveal that UKIP’s status as a right wing party features anomalies that are too big to bury or ignore.
The book provides a lot of the background work to disprove the idea that UKIP can be rammed into some format to fit left/right of UK politics and that it cannot either now be so easily dismissed as BNP-lite; a slight failing of the book and certainly even more of those who comment upon it, is that they do not take this to a logical conclusion and are quick to jump to convenient conclusions. Much mentioned is the idea that supporters are mostly male, but the almost daily polling from yougov shows support from the sexes to be roughly equal. Today’s polling shows 13%/12% M/F (with Labour, say, at 37/37). And as for support or otherwise from the young, for a long period last year, as was pointed out in a previous piece here, UKIP support was strongest from the 65+ and then the 18-25s were the second highest in many polls. These exceptions, and the degree to which any theories about voting patterns might apply to other parties, need to be properly explained if one is not simply to rely upon comfortable assumptions.
Reading tortuous arguments about UKIP being the Tea Party of British politics make their authors immediately lose credibility to anyone who understands and knows the party and its supporters in even the most casual way. So keen were reporters to jam the party into this thesis that there were even headlines wrongly saying that Farage claimed this. Would a Tea Party include a leadership and attract supporters and voters who have firmly opposed privatisations like the Royal Mail (UKIP opposed privatization of the Royal Mail by the last Labour government loudly and consistently) and whose voters are among the most in favour of re-nationalisation of the railways and utilities. A party which, according to opinion polling, one in 10 voters believe is left wing?
These awkward bits which do not fit the political jigsaw are ignored by almost all the media and commentators, who sit with pieces that do not fit the puzzle and bang them with some force into the wrong holes just for convenience.
The book in particular flags up for possibly the first time outside of internal party discussion what is not just a recent phenomenon – the attraction of the party to many former voters of ‘the left’. On the NEC in about 2004/2005 we began to realise that our days as “The Tory Party in Mourning” could be celebrated as over and done. The fear “you’ll let Labour in” has now gone from most of the UKIP ranks. And one of the intriguing possibilities it reveals, without actually taking the point to its logical conclusion, is the fluctuating position of UKIP on the spectrum in regard to specific issues, and what elected UKIP MPs might do when faced with even just a handful of seats in a tricky parliamentary situation.
Elected members of all UK parties in the European Parliament, not just UKIP, live in a bit of a no man’s land, at least to the average voter – no one quite knows what they are for, they are unknown to the voters and it appears to be a kind of settled will that they do not matter. But elected UKIP members on other bodies, even local councils, are much better known where they live and are judged by their actions there. All those elected to such bodies are party to policy and political decisions which are reported and discussed. To people locally, they can have greater relevance than remoter MEPs. When my colleague Peter Hulme-Cross and I were elected to the London Assembly in 2004, our actions and approach to policy on London matters appeared in the London media frequently, unlike our colleagues elected to the European Parliament.
Faced with the need to make such decisions, UKIP politicians will often make choices which might surprise those who think in terms of cliché. For example, my colleague Hulme Cross refused to budge over his lone support for sacked workers on the fire authority, attracting pressure and ire not just from the Tories who had a kind of de facto majority on the body, but also from the rest of the establishment, left and right. On the police authority (MPA) I regularly joined with the Green member Jenny Jones (against the rest) in upholding the need to ensure fairness for demonstrators and other aspects of civil liberties which need to be kept at the forefront of policing oversight, however unpopular it makes you with the establishment. And I joined the awkward squad Equalities and Diversities Committee where the Tories simply blanked it. We certainly were not Tories in mourning
Leaving aside the partisan cliché approach to UKIP, there is simply no neocon/right wing control by the centre/leadership and never has been. This lack of control (some would call it lack of discipline) is in some ways democratic, but is also the cause of much trouble and internal strife – unlike the other main parties, there is no patronage structure where inconvenient people are shifted by the leadership to the Lords or given other roles, encouraging them to mute their criticism of party policy and follow a party line, often until it is too little too late (think of Labour and the Gulf War). By and large, UKIP has worked the other way. It depends upon its membership to raise the funds and keep the show on the road, not upon a well funded, long standing career political structure, so a comparatively independently minded membership at all levels (standing in elections as candidates) will say and do more or less whatever it wants.
The thought of a dozen of these people elected in 2015 is a fascinating prospect. They will not be taking orders from any NEC or party leader over in Brussels, a matter which must give the party leadership some thought, and it is likely in some aspects that they will see certain things from a left wing perspective. Last year, Lord Owen raised the issue of the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the supposedly ‘good thing’ that is the EU-US trade deal, asking European Elections candidates for all parties for their views, in particular on the impact upon the NHS. He shrewdly and specifically asked UKIP for its view. No doubt, alas, he has not heard from UKIP on the issue. I have not been a UKIP member for seven years, but of the senior UKIP people I still speak to, the majority share my view of this matter – that until and unless the details are made transparent, the deal itself needs to be opposed. It is, ironically, only here on openDemocracy that I can truly say that this issue has been aired in the way in which UKIP members and candidates I know would probably be inclined to support after due consideration.
A party which in some respects has a thought through, costed and intellectually sustainable position on these issues, moving beyond the immediate kneejerk populist, is a distinct possibility which surely should be encouraged once it is realised that it is here to stay.
At the heart of this is the unresolved dilemma for UKIP over policy and over the need for a decision at some point as to what sort of party UKIP actually is, in terms that can be understood without confusion. This is as strong an issue today as it was when I was Vice Chair of the party a decade ago. Without a full raft of policies, the occasional drift into a populist policy or two can make it look like (say, at today’s date) that UKIP is for pulling out of the EU, kind of a bit against gay marriage and admires Vladimir Putin. It is of course unfair to caricature the party overly--the website reveals policy unmentioned in the press, and Farage has committed to a full manifesto in time for the General Election--but it is hard to see, even in today’s nano-second attention speaking world, that the party can ultimately do without a serious core of costed policies with proper intellectual credibility. The lack of commitment to serious research which has been highlighted by other well known eurosceptics outside of the party, like Richard North on his influential euroferendum blog, is something which many sympathizers have worried about in terms of credibility.
This may, of course, itself be an outdated assumption: in Italy, the Five Star movement got through to almost win an election last year with a sketchy commitment to costed policy, and one-man charisma hauling it through the ranks. Sounds superficially somewhat familiar as a reference to UKIP.
Irrespective of how progressive thinking views UKIP, it may be time to consider UKIP in a new and different way. Much has been made of the electoral system working against the party, and the opinion polling process is evidently unable to get to grips with the basic facts and likelihoods. On one and the same days, different polls which offer near identical figures for Labour and Conservative will vary between 9% and 19% in their forecast for UKIP. Someone has got to be wrong, and at the higher level (achieved regularly in by-elections and local elections), the party can win seats in Parliament. Not many but possibly crucial in a hung parliament. What these people, these individuals, do and stand for, will suddenly have an enormous impact on the public perception of the party. It may shape and define the party in a way that even a mountain of MEPs cannot. At the very least, progressive opinion can use the “if even UKIP can support this” card in the face of a Labour Party in power, in thrall to austerity and almost identical policies to the Conservatives, with its elected representatives cowed and whipped into submission following the now familiar Hollande/Blair pattern. Ford and Goodwin highlight that almost all of the party’s most winnable seats are Labour-held, and party candidates constantly invoke the spirit of past Labour heroes like Attlee with approval, a situation which really does have to be taken at face value – it is not a pose.
If the ‘racist/BNP in blazers’ argument relating to the current heavy reliance upon immigration can be buried or put into a form of proportion, it might even be quite attractive for progressives to have a ‘bunch of right wingers’ elected demanding re-nationalisation, the removal of the NHS from the EU-US trade deal, and calling for Edward Snowden to be given asylum in the UK… Lord Owen was canny to try and coax UKIP on the NHS issue. This one will at some point take root if policy is seriously given priority. Others might usefully try the same and lobby UKIP on aspects of policy about which they feel strongly.
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