UKIP: Dangers of nationalism
Will Nigel Farage change the face of politics? Eddie Ford looks at the evidence
British politics might be changing and this is worrying some people. Voicing this disquiet was the former secretary of state for Wales, Peter Hain. On September 23 he told a Unite Against Fascism fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference that the UK Independence Party could come first in next year’s European elections, having come second to the Tories in 2009 with 16.5% of the vote. Hain warned that the organisation represented a “very dangerous form of populist politics” that “licensed bigotry”, saying that a lot of British National Party supporters had found a home in Ukip.
Responding, Ukip leader Nigel Farage said it was the mainstream parties’ “contempt” for the “hopes and fears” of ordinary people that fuels “political extremism”. After all, he remarked, the Labour Party thinks its own supporters are bigots - a barbed reference, of course, to Gordon Brown’s 2010 encounter in Rochdale with that “bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy, a longstanding Labour supporter, who expressed alarm about eastern Europeans “flocking” to the UK. Farage also claimed that Ukip is actively anti-racist and the only party that bans former BNP members from joining.
The above exchange encapsulates the national chauvinist consensus, which combines bourgeois or institutional anti-racism with British nationalism - and in reality is something that Hain and Farage have in common. Both subscribe to the dominant, reconfigured, post- World War II mythology of the plucky British underdog fighting a democratic crusade against fascism/ Nazism under the leadership of the greatest ever Briton, Winston Churchill. Both regard the BNP, and fascism in general, as a thoroughly ‘unBritish’ phenomenon that needs to be eradicated. Both agree that Mr Smith and Mrs Patel must work together for the ‘national interest’ against all competitors and rivals in the ruthless global race - whether they be Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Somalis, Chinese, Afghans, Iranians, etc. We need to protect ‘our own’ and wave the national flag. A number of British Asians spoke at last week’s Ukip party conference and they pepper its youth wing, Young Independence.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Hain addressed his remarks to the Socialist Workers Party-dominated UAF. Yes, not being a moron, he cautioned against the temptation to “label” Ukip as either racist or fascist, because “that’s far too simple and straightforward an attack to make” and thus is “easy to dispel on their part”. But at heart UAF/SWP’s entire political project has been to espouse “simple” and popular-frontist anti-racism, like urging people at elections, “Don’t vote Nazi”, meaning the BNP. This implied it was fine for workers to vote for Tories and Liberal Democrats. Now, in similar terms, Ukip is being categorised as a racist organisation pure and simple, and hence, like the BNP, beyond the pale.
But the plain fact of the matter is that Ukip’s increasingly loud anti-immigrant message, when all is said and done, does not differ in any essential way from mainstream national chauvinism - any more than Gillian Duffy’s “flocking” comments were that much different from Gordon Brown’s own “British jobs for British workers”, as he put it in his 2007 address to the GMB union. Which in turn was not that far removed from Margaret Thatcher’s notorious January 1978 World in action interview, where she talked about how the British people are “afraid” that the country might be “swamped by people with a different culture” - thus undercutting electoral support for the then resurgent National Front. Over the years we have witnessed a grotesque Dutch auction of bourgeois politicians outbidding each other in demanding stricter and stricter controls over immigration.
Nor is it the case that Ukip is stuffed full of former BNP members and supporters. For instance, a straw poll of 50 Ukip delegates at the conference found 26 had previously been members of the Conservative Party. However, it would also be incorrect to think that Ukip is only picking up disaffected Tory voters - as Farage argued at the time of the Eastleigh by-election in May, only a third of the Ukip vote actually came from unhappy Tories. Most of the other two-thirds, it seems, came from people who had never bothered voting before and a smaller group of disillusioned old Labour voters.
Another possible irony, though maybe one that Peter Hain will not entirely appreciate, is that Ukip’s surge - if that is what it is - could well end up benefiting Labour. The reason for this is not exactly hard to work out. Ukip is squeezing the Tory vote in many key marginals. In a substantial and very informative survey of the 40 Conservative seats with the slimmest majorities, billionaire businessman Lord Ashcroft found Ukip support to be in double figures, which more than triples the average 3% share won by Nigel Farage’s party in the 2010 election.1
The effect would be to split the rightwing vote and give Labour a 14-point lead (by 43% to 29%) in the 32 seats where Tory MPs have the smallest majorities over Labour - an advantage that is almost treble Labour’s five-point lead in the whole of Britain. If Ashcroft’s poll is accurate, this would give Labour a 60-seat majority in the Commons if an election was held tomorrow. Looking at the results, Ashcroft concluded: “If Ukip does as well at the general election as this poll suggests, Ed Miliband could become prime minister with a comfortable majority”.
Farage declared in his keynote speech to the Ukip conference on September 21 that his party is “changing the face” of British politics and could cause an “earthquake” by winning the European elections - which he hoped to turn into a “referendum” on Britain’s membership of the EU. As evidence, he reminded us that no-one had predicted Ukip’s excellent local election results this year, when it picked up 23% of all votes cast - so why can’t history repeat itself? He went on to say that Ukip would win “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of council seats next year and that party membership in the near future would overtake that of the Lib Dems - the latter now standing on 42,501, with Ukip as of July 31 claiming 30,000 members. Ukip, in other words, would become the third largest party in the country.
In fact, he continued, in the next general election his party would field candidates in every constituency, including Northern Ireland, and might even find itself “holding the balance of power” in a hung parliament, although this seems a trifle implausible. Whilst it is quite conceivable that Ukip could win the European elections, it will still have an extremely hard job just to get a single MP, given the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections - a very undemocratic democracy. According to Electoral Calculus, Ukip’s current 13% standing will not get it any MPs.2 Even at a support level of 18%, it will “hardly win any” Westminster seats and will only start to gain more than a handful of MPs if its national support goes above 20%.3 Given that Farage has more or less ruled out any form of electoral pact with David Cameron, it is stretching the imagination to see Ukip acting as the power-broker in the next election - except in the negative sense of letting Labour in by splitting the vote.
Psephological speculation aside, the rest of Farage’s conference speech was a crude and naked bid for the populist vote - yes, he certainly does want to do well at the next general election. Get the Daily Mail on board. Immigration, we were told, was the “biggest single issue facing this country” - even claiming that more people came to the UK in 2010 than “in the thousand years before it”! He further issued dark warnings about an imminent “crime wave” after Romanians and Bulgarians are granted the right to settle in the UK on January 1 - “92% of ATM crime” in Britain is committed by Romanians, he declared.
This revolting display of xenophobia followed the pre-preference Ukip policy statement that only council house applicants whose parents or grandparents were “born locally” should be given priority on waiting lists; and that so-called ‘health tourism’ should be ended - people should be blocked from entering Britain if they do not have health insurance.
Of course, the Ukip conference was overshadowed to a certain extent by the media-generated scandal surrounding the idiotic Godfrey Bloom, the party’s MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber - previous famous for his comments in July about Britain’s foreign aid going to countries in “Bongo Bongo land” - absolutely hilarious. This time round he made a joke about women Ukip members being “sluts” because they never cleaned behind their fridges - you had to be there, I suppose. Farage admitted that he was “pretty hacked off” by Bloom’s “antics”, as it had distracted attention from the party’s “core message” - there is a world of difference, after all, between “pushing the boundaries of debate” on issues such as immigration and foreign aid and what Bloom did (who subsequently resigned the Ukip whip and now sits as an independent).
From now on, promised Farage, there would be regime change within Ukip. There will a “very tough” selection process for prospective candidates and in general it is going to be a “more disciplined party”.
Though sections of the left may robotically insist that Ukip is a racist party, it is actually part of a broader phenomenon both in Europe and the United States - the emergence of large right-populist parties and movements: the Front National, Vlaams Blok, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, Five Star Movement, Tea Party, etc. For all their obvious differences and disagreements on just about anything you care to mention, these parties exist to give vent to petty bourgeois prejudices in a primal form - a virulent national chauvinism, combined with a visceral contempt for migrants and the ‘politically correct’ liberal elite, which it imagines forms the core of the political establishment.
1. The Sunday Telegraph September 15.