Ukip success: Not just a protest vote
Ukips success at the county council elections reflects its voters prejudices, but also long-term alienation from official bourgeois politics, argues Paul Demarty
Many different stories came out of Thursday’s elections. There was a fraught but ultimately comfortable Labour hold in South Shields, where the Liberal Democrats limped in with a humiliating seventh-place finish. There was the unseating of Doncaster’s mayor, Peter Davies, an eccentric far-right fruitcake who hit the headlines with his admiration for the Taliban’s keen grasp of family values.
Overwhelmingly, though, the post-election talk has been of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is undoubtedly the big winner overall. Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s decision to field over 1,700 candidates looked a little over-ambitious in the run-up to the polls, especially when it became clear that some pretty odd people had slipped away with a Ukip ticket amid the deluge.
As with Boris Johnson, however, behind Nigel Farage’s ‘lovable buffoon’ public image lies a savvy political operator. He, and his advisers, knew that there was a good showing to be had in these elections, so they threw everything into them. It was a very, very good call, and the momentum is very definitely behind Ukip going into the European parliament elections next year, where (thanks to the party’s particular hot-button issues and the shape of the British political cycle) it usually over-performs.
Where they stood, Ukip candidates averaged over a quarter of the vote and overall they picked up 23% of all votes cast. Ukip gained 139 councillors, and retained another eight. Its candidate, Richard Elvin, knocked the Tories into third place in the South Shields by-election, picking up 24.2% of the vote.
Understandably, Farage is cock-a-hoop: “We’ve been abused by everybody, attacked by the entire establishment, who did their best to stop ordinary, decent people going out and voting Ukip, and they have done in big, big numbers,” he said. “If you speak to the Westminster elite, they will tell you, ‘It is just a protest - nothing to worry about really.’ [But] When I meet Ukip voters they say, ‘Nigel, we’re voting for you because we believe in what you stand for’.”1
Is his enthusiasm justified? For the most part, it could well be. It would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest that there was no ‘protest vote’ element to Ukip’s strong showing. It is that point in the electoral cycle when exhaustion frequently sets in with a government, and big votes will traditionally go either to the official opposition or non-mainstream parties who happen to be riding high. The Labour Party’s bloodless, technocratic, PR-operation approach to politics failed to get any section of the electorate particularly energised (although its showing was by no means terrible); Ukip certainly captured a cynical anti-establishment mood, which we will examine more closely later.
Yet a quarter of the vote - many tens of thousands of people at least - cannot consist entirely of people who are ignorant of Ukip’s political complexion and merely like the cut of Farage’s jib. Indeed, it would appear that the vast majority of these people knew exactly what they were in for. Dan Hodges, The Daily Telegraph’s pugnacious Blairite-in-residence, estimates that Ukip took four votes from the Tories for every one it took from Labour2; other estimates put the ratio at six to one. These voters knew what they were buying into.
So what exactly are they buying into? Ukip is part of a broader phenomenon in politics, to which the British establishment laughably imagined this country, with its great traditions of ‘tolerance’, ‘pragmatism’ and so forth, was immune - the emergence of large and influential right-populist parties and movements worldwide. Across Europe, from the French Front National to Hungary’s anti-Semitic Jobbik party, in the core northern economies and the beleaguered southern states, mass organisations of this kind may be found. Ukip - along with the American Tea Party movement - represents the Anglo-Saxon contingent of this right-populist resurgence.
Many of these parties are at daggers drawn with each other, of course - rightwing Germans blame the ‘lazy Greeks’ for their problems, and Greeks and Italians blame the tyrannical Germans. But their underlying unity as a political species is undeniable - Ukip, like the FN, the Vlaams Blok, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom and the rest, tout a pretty toxic political brew of petty-bourgeois prejudices. A fierce, xenophobic national chauvinism, with its attendant contempt for migrants and crypto-racist (at best) elements, is allied to a populist hatred of a liberal political establishment out of touch with the common-sense morality of the ‘man in the street’.
In Ukip’s case, it is clear that most emphasis has historically been put on the question of Europe, to the point that Ukip has been portrayed (sometimes not unfairly) as a Eurosceptic, single-issue campaign. What is more alarming is that it has equally managed to harness a reactionary-populist fear of mass migration - a phenomenon easily linked up to the supposed tyranny of Brussels. A broader narrative of social decay is also at work - the sense that certain people have that London is now a ‘foreign city’ due its ethnic composition - and the apparent ascendancy of ‘liberal values’ on issues such as homosexuality is also at work.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is an old, old concoction and, more to the point, is equally an adequate description of the output of the Daily Mail. The parallels, in fact, are striking. A slightly waggish poll by YouGov found that Ukip voters are twice as likely as the general population to believe the utterly discredited hypothesis that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism3 - a scare promulgated most energetically by the Mail at its height and of a piece with its hysterical promotion of idiotic health scares in general. Across the board - Europe, immigration, gay marriage, hatred of a notional ‘lefty elite’ - Britain’s most unhinged daily sells Ukip’s politics to millions of people every morning.
If the Mail provides the programme, it is the rightwing media more generally that has promoted Ukip as a serious challenge to David Cameron from the right. Yes, there have been the amusing stories about plant-pot impersonations, but it is clear - for example - that Rupert Murdoch’s hatred of Cameron and his clique (not to say the European Union) is boundless. His papers have consistently touted the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson - noted, if eccentric, figures on the Tory right - as potential challengers, and wish to ramp up the pressure from this direction.
Threat to Tories
Direct media support, of course, is a fickle thing, and even the Mail will inevitably come out behind Cameron in 2015. Yet it would be fatuous to dismiss Ukip as a flash in the pan on this basis. It is clear that it draws on a real reservoir of support, on issues that are artificially kept on the daily agenda by the reactionary press. The BNP had some success in mobilising that support to get significant votes in the last decade. A group of semi-reformed ex-fascists, however, with a known record of Jew-baiting and stiff-arm salutes, was hardly likely to truly emerge as a mass force in a country where Winston Churchill is about to appear on the five-pound note. Farage and co are incontrovertibly British - and thus far more dangerous.
And, behind the inevitable spin coming out of Tory headquarters, it is clear that many at the heart of the party are rattled. Among the worries is Nadine Dorries, the rightwing Tory MP who famously described Cameron and George Osborne as “two arrogant, posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” and was later stripped of the Tory whip for taking time out to go on I’m a celebrity ... get me out of here! Senior Tories are concerned that Dorries may defect to Ukip, giving them a voice in parliament - and, in the current atmosphere, that others might follow. Bob Spinks similarly defected in 2008, but lost his seat in 2010. Ukip is riding higher now, though, and Dorries may have more staying power.
Come the next election, of course, it is unlikely that Ukip will be sitting pretty on 25% of the vote, or that it will send scores of fresh-faced MPs to parliament. But that is not the issue. If Ukip can perform well enough, in the right constituencies, then the Tory vote could be hopelessly split where it most needs to hold up; it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Ed Miliband will sail into a comfortable victory with an unprecedentedly small share of the vote - given the vagaries of ‘first past the post’, it is possible to imagine him doing so with less than 30%.
This is the broader story at work. In the last three decades, Britain has certainly remained a functioning two-party system so far as general elections go. Yet the times when a victorious party could claim close to an absolute majority of the popular vote are long gone. Tony Blair’s crushing 1997 victory was on 43.2% of the vote; Margaret Thatcher never obtained more than 44%. No party has breached 40% since 2001.
In the meantime, ‘outsiders’ have started to gain serious traction. The Scottish National Party is now in government in Holyrood, and shows no signs of shrivelling to nothing (which is more than can be said for the Scottish Labour and Tory parties, the latter of which is already effectively dead). The Liberal Democrats may be in deep trouble now, but their place in a longer-term trend away from the total dominance of Labour and the Tories is nonetheless clear.
This, in a sense, is peculiar - Britain’s deeply undemocratic electoral system almost demands two-party politics. Yet the decay has a real objective basis, in the progressive erosion of local government under Thatcher and her successors (devolution notwithstanding), in the judicialisation of politics in the same period, and the concomitant atrophying of the main parties at the base.
The Tories, indeed, are worried for another reason about the outcome of this election - councillors are your foot soldiers in national elections, the people who go out on the knocker and get your vote out. Yet this is being presented in the press as a timeless truism, which it certainly is not. Councillors are the parties’ foot soldiers because the parties have shed their activists.
Along with the activists, increasingly the connection to ‘ordinary people’ and the mass of voters that previous leaderships could take for granted disappears. Politics in the Blair-Cameron mode is an utterly technocratic, soulless affair: boffins with PhDs in statistics and bourgeois sociology decide political strategy, and it is quite transparent to the objects of this discourse - the people whose political behaviour is being cynically calculated - that they are being had.
A party like Ukip is ideally placed - far more so than the Lib Dems ever were, in fact - to exploit this disaffection and alienation from the major bourgeois parties. It is written directly into the script. How terribly easy it is to portray Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg - three products of the Westminster machine, so similar in speech and appearance that they may as well have been grown in the same vat in a research lab somewhere - as the foremost representatives of an aloof, arrogant elite!
Lukács observes that the ever more precise calculation of phenomena in society simply makes the eventual reversal into irrationality all the more catastrophic. Something like that may be going on today. The burst of support for this revanchist, loopy, far-right ideology is not some minor blip on the great Whig theory of history, but an inevitable backlash in a situation where the working class - thanks to the stupidity of the left - is unable to assert its own agenda. Whether it finds political expression, ultimately, in Ukip, or a nastier Tory Party, or something worse, is an open question - that 21st century Britain is fertile soil for such deeply reactionary views is undeniable.