Party of lost causes
Eddie Ford looks at the prospects for Ukip
Apart from the possible exception of Sadiq Khan, there were no crushing victories or humiliating defeats in last week’s elections - you could call it an inconclusive draw.
Disappointingly for the Labour right and its allies, the results for Jeremy Corbyn were not disastrous. Was the ‘anti-Semitic’ smear campaign for nothing? In the end, for all the dire predictions about losing 150 or more council seats, Labour was down overall by only 18, as opposed to the 48 that the Tories lost. According to Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, a leadership challenge at this time is now “about as likely as a snowstorm in the Sahara”.
Then there is the United Kingdom Independence Party, which only last year got 12.7% of the popular vote (3,881,099). With questions of immigration and ‘national security’ in the ascendancy and the European Union referendum only six weeks away, Ukip seemed well placed. Indeed, it made something of a breakthrough in the Welsh assembly elections - getting around 13% of the overall vote and scooping up seven seats under the closed party list system, which is elected under a proportional basis. Luckily for Wales, the election marked the return to active duty of the disgraced ex-Conservative MP, Neil ‘Cash for Questions’ Hamilton and the former Tory turncoat, Mark ‘I’m not weird’ Reckless, who was ditched by Kent voters last year.
However, on closer examination, Ukip’s results are not particularly impressive: its vote was no greater than at the general election, with lots of close second places last week, suggesting that the party is still struggling to develop the organisation needed to consistently turn votes into seats. For instance, in 2014 Ukip gained 161 seats in local elections, but this time round only picked up an extra 25 in England, and failed to gain control of any council. In London, Ukip still remains a fringe player and in Scotland, of course, it barely registers statistically.
And even in Wales, the seven seats came from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats rather than at Labour’s expense - which is where Ukip needs to make gains if it is to significantly advance its position. In fact the Express headline, “Ukip surge to boost Brexit” (May 6), looks a little premature.
Obviously, Ukip has done everything it can to take advantage of the hole that David Cameron dug himself into with his EU referendum promise - which he actually had to follow through after unexpectedly winning a parliamentary majority last year. The gods are cruel. In that sense, Ukip is quite right to claim that there would not be a referendum at all if it was not for them - its strong showing in opinion polls spooked Cameron into taking that course of action.
But it is questionable as to whether Ukip will gain any lasting benefit from the referendum itself. For all the excited speculation in rightwing newspapers, the most likely outcome next month is ‘remain’ - perhaps by a relatively comfortable margin. The reasons for that are simple enough. Firstly, referendums generally favour the status quo - especially in the last leg of the campaign, where conservative instincts and fears tend to take over. Secondly, the establishment and big business as a whole are strongly in favour of ‘remain’ and will use their considerable resources to get the result they want. We had another volley from Project Fear at the beginning of the week, having us believe Brexit would increase the risk of Europe descending into war. Cameron invoked the spirit of Winston Churchill, of course, and used the battles of Trafalgar, Blenheim, Waterloo and the two world wars as ‘evidence’ that Britain cannot pretend to be “immune from the consequences” of events in Europe. Voting ‘remain’ is your patriotic duty.
Most opinion polls have the two camps neck and neck - the latest ICM survey has ‘remain’ on 44% and ‘leave’ on 46%, whilst YouGov has them respectively on 42% and 40%. But the Financial Times’ ‘poll of polls’ tracker has ‘remain’ ahead by three points on 46%, and this writer would expect that lead to increase, as the propaganda offensive from the pro-EU camp gets louder and louder. Maybe sadly for Farage, England is not like Scotland, where pro-independence sentiment is now a permanent feature of the political landscape. The Scottish National Party is now stronger than ever despite losing the referendum in 2014. But after June 23 it is more than likely that opposition to the EU will return to what it had previously been: a slightly peculiar hobby horse of sections of the right and left, without any solid or stable mass backing.
Of course, you cannot rule out the possibility of a victory for the ‘leave’ camp - but would that be such a bonanza for Ukip? No doubt Farage and company would have a field day exposing the hypocrisy of prime minister Boris Johnson’s latest ‘fundamental renegotiation’, after he returns from Brussels waving yet another worthless piece of paper and getting essentially the same “rotten deal” as Cameron. But when ‘remain’ romps home in a second referendum - the most likely result, given Johnson’s authority - what then for Ukip? It is hard to see it having a renaissance or a massive electoral revival: quite the opposite, if anything. More the case that its support starts to dwindle, as it starts to look like a party without a cause or direction.
John Mills, deputy chair of Vote Leave and a major Labour donor, recently mused in Newsweek about Ukip being a “big worry” for the Labour Party - Ukip’s “intention” is to “try and get something off the ground” in the UK like the Five Star Movement in Italy, he said, which would see it “try and peel off substantial amounts of largely Labour but other political support as well”.1 Mills went on to remark that “one of the problems” about having “such a Europhile party” (ie, Labour) in the House of Commons is that this “doesn’t reflect the views of large numbers of Labour-leaning potential voters and it’s opening up schisms” - “a lot of Labour supporters” were “puzzled” by the fact that Labour “hasn’t really got a positive series of policy changes” that “working class voters would like to see”. In other words, Labour needs to court the chauvinistic, Eurosceptic, anti-migrant vote.
Similarly, Matthew Goodwin - academic expert on the far right and writer on Ukip2 - told the Politico website about a “secret” post-referendum plan for the party which hopes to emerge from the defeat with a “new movement” that has “much broader appeal”, just as the SNP “went on to force a complete realignment of politics” in the 2015 general election despite experiencing defeat only a year earlier in the referendum.3 However, Ukip is currently treading water at between 10% and 15% in the opinion polls.
It is hoping to build, in Goodwin’s words, a “younger, more active support base”, but so far it has made little to no way headway among younger voters, nor has it made many inroads among women or minorities: it remains overwhelmingly a party of disgruntled, white, older men, who regret that the empire no longer exists. But, Goodwin writes, were the “new movement” to “press the same buttons as radical right parties in other European states - populist attacks against banks, tax evaders, corporate cartels and the excesses of globalisation - then it could be a very different story”.
Frankly, this is extremely unconvincing - more an imaginative exercise than political science. The space for a British version of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement seems extremely limited, if not virtually non-existent, with our first-past-the-post system and deeply entrenched political parties. The Conservative Party has its right flank securely covered and ditto for Labour on its left - even more so now that Corbyn is leader. Such a “new movement” would have a Herculean task to convert any possible support into votes and actual seats in parliament. Even in Wales there is no evidence that Ukip managed to “peel off” a substantial amount of Labour voters. Indeed, far from securing its position, Ukip in Wales seems to be in a state of civil war - with Neil Hamilton, who does not even live in the principality, seizing the leadership of the party’s group in the Welsh assembly from Nathan Gill, despite Nigel Farage’s opposition.4 Gill described the events as “bizarre” and an unhappy Farage blasted the ‘coup’ as “unjust and an act of deep ingratitude”.
As this paper has pointed out many times before, far from being an ‘unBritish’ extremist menace, Ukip - this or that populist gesture aside - is actually part of the mainstream nationalist consensus, which contends that immigration is a problem. Therefore Nigel Farage’s chances of morphing into Beppe Grillo are, as Ton Watson might well say, as likely as a bush fire in the Arctic. Ukip is very, very British.
The latest issue of Socialist Worker reiterates for the thousandth time that “Ukip gains”, such as they are, should act as a “warning” to “keep fighting racists” (May 10). But, whatever the Socialist Workers Party might tiresomely insist, Ukip is not a racist organisation in terms of its formal programme (insofar as it has one) or the outlook of its leadership - even if some of its members, including quite prominent ones, do have racist and other prejudices. But, then again, you can say the same thing about the Tories - yet to accuse Cameron of being a racist would be utterly absurd.
Ultimately, Ukip’s strident anti-migrant message does not fundamentally differ from the mainstream ideology, which combines bourgeois or institutional anti-racism with British nationalism. Ukip just has a more virulent petty bourgeois version, peppered with a visceral hatred for the ‘politically correct’, same-sex marrying, anti-foxhunting, Guardian-reading, metropolitan liberal elite and feckless ‘scroungers’ - whether migrants or not. In that sense Ukip hates white people too. There is no reason to scornfully laugh when Ukip says it is a “non-racist” party - Nigel Farage wants all Britons, including previous immigrants and their descendants, to unite around the union jack against non-British outsiders - Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Syrians, etc. Just like Gordon Brown, Farage wants ‘British jobs for British workers’, regardless of their ethnic background.
Farage has long argued, like George Galloway and others, for a points-based immigration system like the one in Australia. If you are a skilled Pole, African, Chinese, European or whoever, white or black, then you may well be welcome. But for Farage unskilled Poles, Africans, etc have come to “take our resources” - which is “not a race question”, but instead a matter of “our country’s needs”. Robotically, the SWP comrades call this a form of disguised or “sophisticated” racism - presumably to be contrasted to the crude master-race stuff you used to get from British National Party and National Front. But surely this is rather a manifestation of ‘common sense’ national chauvinism - which is something rather different.
Actually, Farage can play the official anti-racist card as much as the next bourgeois politician - hence his fulminations against the “Jew-hating” extremists who have “taken control” of the Labour Party, and his attacks on Jackie Walker, the latest victim of the ‘anti-Semitic’ smear campaign directed at the Labour Party. According to Farage, she is a woman “full of hatred and anger”, who “regularly shrieked and ranted at myself and Ukip activists whenever given half the opportunity”.5 Now “she herself has just been suspended from the Labour Party for blaming Jewish people for an ‘African holocaust’, claiming that they are ‘chief financiers of the slave trade’”. So here we have the leader of a ‘racist’ party joining in the smears - the Ukip leader has actually added his voice to demands that such ‘anti-Semites’ be purged from the Labour Party.
The Stand Up To Ukip popular front was ridiculous when it was launched and it is equally ridiculous now. We were told by the SWP that it wants “people of goodwill” to come together and say no to Ukip’s “racism” - “regardless of our differing views on Europe or other political issues”. We can only assume that this was an invitation for Tories, Lib Dems, SNPers, etc, to come on board and fight the Ukip menace. But come on board they haven’t. They are too busy fighting Ukip where it matters - standing in election and winning votes. Meanwhile, they are more than happy for the SWP to get childishly excited and keep shouting ‘racist, racist, racist’ at every passing Ukip supporter. What a farce.
2. He is the author of Ukip: inside the campaign to redraw the map of British politics Oxford 2015.