'Nothing is real, everything is fake'. Enter Nigel Farage, UKIP leader and temporary answer to a widespread disaffection with British politics and politicians.
Farage's ascent says less about the Tories and more about a wider rejection of politics and politicians. “UKIP will continue to challenge the cosy Westminster consensus”. Party leader Nigel Farage's Facebook comment a week before their local elections triumph nicely summed up the appeal of his persona and his party. But whilst the commentariat get themselves into knots over the party’s policies, what's really occurred is a more basic rejection of Westminster politics.
Take these two points:
First, via analyst Andrew Rawnsley, of a recent focus group of UKIP voters: “Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: "The past." The rest of the group nodded in agreement.”
Second, from a recent YouGov poll: “More than three-quarters (76%) cite a desire to see immigration to Britain reduced, and 59% say a desire to see Britain leave the European Union – the primary objective of the party at its founding in 1991 – is what made them vote UKIP.”
We've been here before. Four years prior, the BNP was touted for big gains in local elections, as pundits lined up in unison to denounce the party's apparent racism. The easy, emotive appeal of 'common sense' and 'independence' secured local gains that later evaporated as BNP officials proved incompetent to staff local government. The experience of UKIP may well be similar, but that appeal won't go away.
What's more dangerous for Westminster is the growing rejection of the main parties. The inability of the Conservatives to form a majority government back in 2010 first sparked alarm in the political class. With Miliband's ultra-bland Labour party unable to capitalise on contemporary discontents, 2015 looks like a quagmire of uncertainty, backroom dealing and more minority government. The career politician could be an endangered species.
As a community worker, I meet many people who feel ignored, betrayed and pessimistic. They feel they lack representation in a parliament dominated by an Oxbridge-educated class of career politicians. Our most recent two prime ministers lacked a popular mandate: Gordon Brown remained unelected, whilst Cameron's Conservatives only secured 23% of the available electoral vote in 2010 – the current projected national share of UKIP, according to the BBC. In the eyes of these people, Westminster politicians and the wider establishment have been left with little credibility. Memories of the MPs' expenses scandal remain, while Leveson's inquiry brought to the fore the sinister collusion of the press with politicians and the police. Meanwhile, the government pursues its flogging of the nation's family silver – privatising the NHS, police forces, post office, prisons – anything that might possibly still belong to the public – and dismantling the welfare system. It's a terrifying prospect for many, but without any real mainstream political opposition, we feel powerless to resist it.
Insecurity is rife amongst young and old. Everywhere we look, organisations established to protect the British public are mired in corruption. Racism and suspicious deaths in custody continue to blight the Metropolitan Police. Overseas, our 'brave boys' are caught in another Iraqi torture scandal. Add that to the failure to prosecute any of the reckless bankers involved in the 2008 credit crisis, or even reform the financial system in any meaningful way. Whilst inflation increases, wages and benefits are cut in real terms and the poor, the disabled and their carers bear the brunt of austerity. Meanwhile, HMRC allows major corporations and CEOs to avoid paying taxes. Outside the Tory shires, in the deprived estates of Manchester, Birmingham or south London where I live, there is a visceral sense that this is a war against the poor. Voters are aware of this, of course they are. As yet another cleric or former TV star is arrested in a new sex scandal, the British are desperate for something new to believe in.
As the late author JG Ballard remarked of our political culture back in 2003, “nothing is real, everything is fake.” Enter Farage, who retails a cosy myth of English country pub authenticity. As with the other political parties, prod a finger beneath the connection of myth to policy and the meaning becomes risible. No matter, it's only an advert. Either way, the attraction of a new model on the market, a new colour to choose instead of a rootsy, liberal red or an aspirational, family-values blue, is popular fare. Remember that it was Clegg's proposed 'new politics' during the 2010 elections TV debates that led to his surge in the polls. Though Farage may well make major gains in the June 2014 European elections, his new voters are likely to soon get bored and cynical. As with the Lib Dems, the landing back to reality will be rude, harsh and painful.
Though many on the right may be in awe of Farage, like for instance Peter Oborne, who writes adoringly of “his pint of beer, his Rothmans, his cheerful saloon-bar views and his patent authenticity”, the mass of public opinion is still elsewhere. But in dismissing UKIP as 'fruitcakes', 'clowns' and mavericks, the Westminster establishment have unintentionally provided them with a brilliant PR coup. These sectarian jibes offer the dangerous illusion that UKIP are meaningfully opposed to the political establishment. Similarly, calls for a 'UKIP of the Left' inadvertently reaffirm the validity of the party whilst also patronising the wide body of citizens, not taking into the account the real, untapped and repressed reasons for their profound discontent.
With this proviso, there is plenty that could be learned from UKIP. Valuing opportunity, discipline, hard work, or attacking the entitlement culture of bankers and the Oxbridge elite – these are all vote winners. Or protecting communities and developers from the excesses of austerity cuts, shambolic PFI developments or pitiless high-street moneylending – all easy messages. Or even a nostalgia for Britain as it once was – the 'Spirit of 45' that forged the NHS and enjoyed proper-functioning nationalised industries and a housing boom, which rebuilt itself after the war – it's all in reach. Who wants it?
Despite having scrambled in many different directions, the Left is so far struggling to reach out to this collective disaffection. Its older entities are now either dead or dying – the Lib Dems and SWP have recently been tarnished by their own accusations of sex scandals and corruption. The 'People's Assemblies' against austerity are a compelling new initiative, as Dan Hind's piece for OurKingdom explores. Throwing a carrot out to the newly-formed Left Unity, Hind calls for a new political party to represent this movement for people's assemblies. Small community-based Left Unity groups have begun springing up around the country, offering some light in the usual gloom. Both the People's Assemblies and Left Unity are pursuing a similar thought – provide and establish a common Left voice. But with these calls haven't so far been particularly persuasive or popular – nowhere near the scale reached by mass movements of the 1930s or 70s, during periods of similar social and political strife.
The challenge for the Left is to create a new narrative. This means a programmatic vision, but one that must also be underscored by attention and skill in visual propaganda, with infrastructure to deliver both. Whilst UKIP recycles cliches of England's scepter'd isle and Tories fear for their political lives, the real problems behind Britain’s disintegrating social fabric and its 'lost generation' of young people remain.