Austerity and the rise of UKIP

Often at meetings of the left about UKIP and racism, or cuts to public services and pay, speakers will make a connection between the political rise of UKIP and the government’s austerity agenda. In the meetings, this is often expressed as follows: people are frustrated about the fact they can’t get a job or the fact that they can’t get a council house so they turn to UKIP who provide them with scapegoats; namely, immigrants.

The basics of the theory – that there is some relationship between austerity and the growth of racism (and by extension, the growth of UKIP) – is doubtless correct. However, the way in which this relationship is (implicitly) framed doesn’t quite capture the political dynamic that links the rise of austerity with the rise of Farage’s right-wing populist party.

For instance, if it were true that the hit to people’s living standards is the cause of UKIP’s new relative popularity (although let’s not get ahead of ourselves – they currently poll at only 12% of the electorate, and 44% say they would never under any circumstances vote for UKIP), why is it that there has been no similar left radicalisation? It’s important to emphasise that the shift to the radical populist right by sections of the electorate isn’t the outcome of some deterministic – eonomistic, even – law that says “in periods of crisis, people get more right-wing”. The rise of UKIP can’t be explained by reference to economic processes alone, it also needs to be explained politically. It’s into this political dynamic that the campaign against UKIP must intervene.

Austerity and Racism

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the ramping up of racism by the government is an attempt to divide the resistance to austerity and scapegoat a section of the population for the problems Britain faces. For example, recently David Cameron very plainly asserted that it was Eastern European immigrants that were forcing down wages (and not, say, unscrupulous bosses – as an aside, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that immigrant labour exerts a downward pressure on wages. In fact, Mick Burke astutely points out that these were precisely the same sorts of arguments used against women joining the workforce in the early 20th century). Cameron’s comments were a crude (but effective) attempt at distraction.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party is also in danger of succumbing to this divide and rule tactic. In his speech to Bloomberg, delivered in his failed bid to become Labour leader, the now shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, rightly pointed out that it’s the  decline in growth, caused by a collapse in  private investment, that has driven the economic crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. Logically, it follows that if capital won’t invest the hundreds of billions it has hoarded, the government should make it. This in itself requires some kind of assault on capital; an assault to which Ed Balls and the Labour frontbench have subsequently refused to commit.

In the absence of an economic strategy that makes the 1% – rather than the 99% – pay for the crisis, the Labour Party will be left with a set of policies that continue the attack on living standards started by the Tories (it’s irrelevant to the present argument whether this is a more moderate attack or not). This will only strengthen the hand of those inside and outside Labour who wish to see it move to the right on immigration because the Party will need a political justification for the cuts it will inflict upon people; they will need a scapegoat.

UKIP and mainstream politics

If the Tory austerity agenda (alongside Labour’s reticence to articulate an alternative) has engendered the race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric, it’s also this rhetoric which has fed the growth of UKIP. In fact, UKIP’s strategy of exploiting immigration is relatively new. Previously the Party had been fixated on the EU. The strategy of connecting immigration with the EU is designed precisely to key into this mainstream racist sentiment, valorised by the Tory-led government.

As I’ve argued, UKIP’s primary source of support comes from older, white, male, working-class Tories. The UKIP vote is therefore best understood as a split in the Tory base. The Tories know this. In fact, it’s Lord Ashcroft, a Tory donor and strategist, who has commissioned some of the most extensive polling on UKIP. His latest poll demonstrates that UKIP voters are overwhelmingly (50%) ex-Tory voters, whereas only 15% of those who voted UKIP in the last election voted Labour (there are, of course, exceptions, but this is, nonetheless the rule).

If the success of UKIP is a product of the increase of mainstream Tory racism, and if UKIP represents a split in the Tory electoral base, then the real danger is that the Conservatives will lurch even further to the right on immigration to shore up the voters they risk losing.

This will have the further effect of piling the political pessure on Labour to concede the point on immigration, “admit” they “got it wrong” under Blair and Brown, and propose their own punitive measures against immigrant communities. At present, the main pressure on the Party in this direction consists of the claim that UKIP are picking up the votes of working class men – one of Labour’s traditional bastions of support – which is eating into their electoral base.

This argument comes from UKIP itself, but also from within the Party (Sadiq Khan’s recent open letter of apology to UKIP voters is one of the most drastic cases in point). The logic goes that voters are leaving Labour to vote UKIP, so the Labour leadership need to listen to the “legitimate concerns” of those voters to win them back (read: make concessions to anti-immigrant racism). However, it misses out a key part of the picture: namely, that UKIP voters may well be working-class, but they are working-class Tories, not ex-Labour voters. It’s a little far-fetched to assume that these voters will switch to Labour on the basis of a raft of new Labour policies that attack immigrants. Why would you vote Labour if you’ve never done so before and if there are “real” anti-immigrant parties – the Tories, UKIP, the BNP even – for whom you can vote?

Unfortunately, this argument – which is being promoted by sections of the Labour right – is also being repeated by some sections of the Left. Of course, the story is spun slightly differently: instead it’s said that the Labour Party is losing votes to UKIP because it’s refusing to stand up for working class people. The strategy for opposing UKIP is consequently posed as an economic strategy: if Labour (or some other Party) pledged to provide people with housing, jobs and decent pay then people would vote for it.

It’s true that Labour lost votes as a consequence of moving to the right. However, the polling data cited above suggest that it’s not true that these people are voting for UKIP. In fact, it seems more likely that of the 6 million people who stopped voting Labour whilst they were in office, the majority defected to the Lib Dems, the Greens or stopped voting altogether. Advocating an economic strategy that protects the standards of living for the majority in society is one way of winning back these lost voters. However, an economic strategy alone will not suffice to stand up to UKIP.

The Left needs to wage a political struggle against racism

It’s certainly correct to say that UKIP has had electoral successes (although they are more modest than they are depicted by the media and Farage) and that these successes have depended upon the context of the economic crisis.

However, the relationship between economic processes and the rise of UKIP should not be posed deterministically. Rather, UKIP has fed off the ideological ground made fertile by the Conservatives and the divide and rule, scapegoating tactics the Tories have used to defend the austerity agenda. UKIP represent a split in the Tory party that want to pull it even further to the right. This looks to be succeeding.

This has knock-on effects for the Labour Party and, as a consequence, the Left as a whole. Labour will come under increasing pressure to be “tougher” on immigration. Despite evidence to the contrary, it will be (and is being) argued that a significant portion of its electoral base are turning to UKIP and that to stop this, Labour must make concessions to anti-immigrant racism (these proposals become even more attractve in the absence of an economic alternative to austerity).

The polling directly contradicts this view, showing that it is the Tories, not the Labour Party, who are significanly losing votes to UKIP. It will do us no good at all to concede ground on this point and go along with the idea that UKIP are substantially eating into Labour’s base. It’s not true and only gives more strength to the Labour right, who want to justify a shift to the right on immigration on pragmatic grounds (the classic line being that it’s useless grandstanding about immigration if you’re not in power). From the perspective of winning elections, this rightward shift – which is essentially a strategy of chasing ex-Tory votes – is anything but pragmatic. It’s unconvincing to the ex-Tory UKIPers and it will alienate Labour’s natural supporters. It will also feed the rightward dynamic that UKIP have created.

It’s clear, then, that there is a causal relationship between the implementation of austerity and the electoral fortunes of UKIP. But it’s a political relationship in which the need to justify an unjust economic policy nourishes a more radical right-wing socal force that then pulls the centre of political gravity further to the right, putting pressure on the centre-left to follow suite. This dynamic has its origins in austerity, but it’s playing out in the realm of politics, not economics.

The response to it cannot simply be to call for economic reforms like more council homes, jobs and better pay and conditions (although it would certainly make it easier if the Labour Party were to do this!). The Left also needs to tackle the politics – i.e. the racism – of UKIP head-on. This means challenging the view that immigrants depress wages; challenging the view that immigrants take jobs; and challenging the view that they are responsible for the lack of affordable housing. But it also means calling UKIP’s views on immigration for what they are: racist. It’s only by waging a concerted struggle against the racism fueling UKIP that the march to the right on immigration can be halted.


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