Farage parks his tanks
Ukip has every reason to feel chipper, says Eddie Ford. It has enjoyed high-profile Tory defections and is riding high in the polls
This year’s United Kingdom Independence Party conference was held in Doncaster for obvious symbolic reasons. Firstly, it is Ed Miliband’s home territory - he has been the MP for Doncaster North since 2005. Secondly, more importantly, it is part of Ukip’s pitch for the traditional Labour vote - or as Nigel Farage put it at conference, “we are now parking our tanks on the Labour Party’s lawn”.
Of course, Ukip has a problem when it comes to “tearing vast chunks” (Farage) out of Labour support. If you look at its top people, almost without exception they come from the Conservative Party: in other words, Tories in exile, having an instinctive ideological hostility to Labourism. Furthermore, numerous psephological studies have shown (as if you did not know) that it is Tories, or former Tories, who are most likely to vote Ukip - currently, about two-thirds of Ukip voters supported the Conservatives in the 2010 general election (although before that many say they voted Labour).
So the basic outlook of a large section of Ukip’s membership is barely distinguishable from that of the Tories - or its hard-core Thatcherite right wing, to be more exact. Hardly surprisingly, Ukip does best among those who say they are “fairly” or “very” rightwing, and among readers of the Daily Mail and Daily Express - 24% of 37,000 electors questioned as part of a YouGov poll conducted in February.1 However, the same poll also tells us that Ukip strongly appeals to older, white, working class Tories (22%), particularly those who left school at 15 or 16 and earn less than £20,000 a year. This cohort would normally be regarded as ‘natural’ Labour voters, but actually tend to look to tax cuts rather than social solidarity or progressive political change to improve their lot. But, having said that, it is important to bear in mind that at the last general election 15% of Ukip’s support came from Liberal Democrats and in the Eastleigh by-election - which saw Ukip come a good second - a full 31% of votes equally came from both ex-Tory and Lib Dem voters, with 10% from Labour and perhaps about 15% who did not bother voting at the last general election (if ever).2 As Farage knows all too well, non-voters are the largest slice of the electorate - more than 40%.
True, Ukip’s ideology is evolving. By definition, this will be a messy, contradictory, affair - improvised on the hoof. But at the end of the day what truly distinguishes the party is its virulently petty bourgeois, little-England populism. Hence Farage deployed typical demagogic rhetoric, telling cheering delegates at the Doncaster racecourse that “we are not a party of left or right” - no, “we are the party of right or wrong”. Such talk might make your average Weekly Worker reader want to throw up, but it goes down a treat at Ukip (or Tea Party) meetings.
Nevertheless, if Farage wants to make serious inroads into the Labour vote, then he has to make positive noises about the NHS - a top concern for traditional Labour voters, naturally. Perhaps that helps to explain the mysterious case of Paul Nuttall’s disappearing web page, where Ukip’s deputy leader and MEP for the North West of England argued that the “very existence” of the NHS “stifles competition”, which means that “innovation and improvements are restricted”.3 Not very on-message, to put it mildly. Farage is now saying that the NHS will be “safe” in his hands - where have we heard that before? He will keep it free at the point of access, righteously denying Labour claims that Ukip would introduce charges to see GPs.
Other proposals in his speech included allowing employers to discriminate in favour of British workers, making private medical insurance compulsory for foreigners, and bringing in a ‘luxury tax’ (ie, a VAT rate of 25%) on shoes costing more than £200, handbags more than £1,000, cars more than £50,000, etc - a policy which 48 hours later was declared “dead” by Farage; it was only ever a “discussion point”, it seems. Another idea was getting rid of tuition fees for science subjects, which would apparently be funded by charging students from other European Union countries the same overseas fees paid by those from outside the EU.
The “number one” issue for Farage is immigration and the linked question of the EU. “We must take back control of our border,” he proclaimed. Whether we like it or not, about half of the British population does not trust any of the main parties on this issue - believing they are either too soft or actively duplicitous.4 After all, everyone knows that Cameron will fight to stay within the EU, because that is the position of big business. By playing the immigration card for everything it is worth, mixed in with its new ‘pro-NHS’ stance, Ukip plans to eat away at the traditional Labour vote.
Ukip can easily make hay on this issue thanks to the stupid Tory commitment to restrict immigration to 100,000 a year - always a total pipe-dream, especially in times of recession throughout Europe. The fact of the matter is that people will move to Britain in the hope of finding work, given its world language and capital city. The Tories made an idiot promise, and everyone knows it. Ukip, on the other hand, has a simple and seemingly viable solution - withdrawal from the EU and hence from its internal free-movement obligations, plus the introduction of an Australian-style points-based immigration system. That is, one that would welcome skilled workers, whether they be from the Indian sub-continent or wherever, black or white, but would immediately slam the door on unskilled workers - Nigel Farage’s Britain would not want you if you have come to “take our resources”. Hence Steven Woolfe, Ukip’s migration spokesman, said the party will bring down immigration to 50,000 by the introduction of a points system and also by turning away at the border immigrants without ID.
Socialist Workers Party comrades, as regular Weekly Worker readers will know, insist that Farage’s position is “racist” - its pathetic front organisation, Stand Up To Ukip, demonstrated outside the Doncaster conference to “expose” Ukip’s supposedly true nature. In last week’s Socialist Worker, ‘Linda’ from Morecambe told the paper that “we have to address the lies about immigration”, while ‘Parveen’ from Doncaster was protesting because Ukip is “playing on people’s fears about not finding work” and “telling them it’s about immigration” - instead, he argued, “we’ve got to stop them or we’ll end up with racism” (September 23).
The SWP spectacularly misses the point. The idea that Ukip is so utterly different from the Tories, Lib Dems or - for that matter, Labour - is delusional. As we have pointed out quite a few times, Farage is coming out with the thoroughly mainstream view that migrants are a problem if there are too many of them - acting as a drain on the NHS and taking jobs that should go to British workers, as Gordon Brown pointed out not so long ago. In other words, Farage fully signs up to the ‘common sense’ national chauvinist consensus - or, to use the words attributed to him in the SWP’s internal Party Notes, this is “not a race question”, but rather a question of “our country’s needs” (May 5 2014). From that angle, communists have no problem in believing Farage when he says that Ukip is a “non-racist” party - why shouldn’t we, or is Gordon Brown a racist too? Then what about George Galloway, who argues for a points-based immigration system? Or the No2EU lash-up between the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which wants to introduce ‘socialist’ border controls?
Leaving aside the SWP’s cynical attempt to earn brownie points from the establishment, Farage genuinely wants previous immigrants - whatever their ethnicity - and their descendants to integrate into official British society: enthusiastically waving the flag, fighting to preserve the union and loving the queen. In reality, to one degree or another all the mainstream parties appeal and pander to British nationalism.
Another thing that has to be patiently pointed out is that not everything Nigel Farage says about immigration is “lies” - sorry, comrade ‘Linda’. Many people’s subjective responses to immigration are perfectly understandable: millions languish on the dole, especially under-21s, and real wages have not kept up with inflation (in some parts of the country they have gone down in absolute terms). Therefore cutting down on immigration can appear to be the obvious answer. And the very last thing you need is an SWP member screaming moralistic abuse at you.
Ukip has every reason to feel chipper at the moment. A recent poll puts it on 17% - ahead of the Lib Dems on 7% and the Greens on 4%, with Labour on 34% and the Tories on 32%.5 More significantly still, it has enjoyed two high-profile Tory defections in the form of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless.
On top of all that, we also had the defection on September 30 of Richard Barnes - the former Conservative deputy mayor of London and Boris Johnson’s one-time “right-hand man” at City Hall. He told the Evening Standard that the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems did not “speak the language of normal people”. And on October 1 the BBC reported that a major Conservative party donor, insurance entrepreneur Arron Banks, was about to join Ukip. Banks has donated more than £250,000 to the Tories since David Cameron became leader and now plans to hand over a £1 million cheque - Farage must be a happy man. The Ukip leader has hinted, whether mischievously or not, that there are more defections to come.
Carswell was a popular sitting MP and a prominent Eurosceptic. His defection was a closely guarded secret until he held a surprise press conference at Westminster - quite an impressive operation by Ukip, it has to be said. Carswell thinks that only Ukip can “shake up that cosy little clique called Westminster”, where “many are just in it for themselves”. They “seek every great office”, yet “believe in so little”.
And it now looks as though Ukip will have a Westminster presence very soon. Carswell seems certain to regain his Clacton seat in the October 9 by-election. On the same day there will be also be a by-election in Heywood and Middleton, following the recent death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin. Ukip’s candidate, John Bickley, is widely expected to come at least second. As for Reckless, he seems to be a bit of an oddball - not enjoying the same high levels of popularity as Carswell. But it is more than possible that he will win Rochester and Stroud for Ukip when the time comes.
All in all, therefore, it is not impossible that Ukip will get up to 10 MPs at the next general election - at least according to the analysis proffered by Peter Kellner in the pages of The Guardian (September 29). Kellner argues that “simple arithmetic” tells us two things about the next election: for Labour or the Conservatives to win outright, one needs to have at least 90 more seats than the other - which looks “improbable”. Secondly, even to form a majority coalition, the number of Lib Dem MPs must exceed the total of the other minority parties - which, of course, was the position in 2010, when the Lib Dems secured twice as many seats as the combined total of Green, nationalist and Northern Ireland parties. But how likely is that come the 2015 general election?
Looking at these calculations and the general drift to the right in British politics, Nigel Farage’s claim at Doncaster that Ukip could hold the “balance of power” after the next general election is not entirely fanciful.