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.


Labour needs a positive message on immigration

Before the dust had settled from the local elections and before the results of the European elections had even been announced, the media were portraying UKIP as the resounding victors, with the BBC loudly endorsing Nigel Farage’s claim to have created an earthquake in British politics. In the run-up to the elections, some politicians and academics warned that Labour faced a serious challenge from the insurgent right-wing party. In the aftermath, senior Labour Party figures said that Labour had to reach out and win back voters who had turned to UKIP. The hand-wringing and chest-beating reached a climax last Monday, with Sadiq Khan publishing an open letter in The Express apologising to UKIP voters for Labour’s ‘mistakes’ on immigration.

The implicit argument made by Khan and those who agree with him is that Labour voters are switching from the Labour Party to vote UKIP. To stop this from happening Labour needs to show that it takes the concerns of these voters seriously by getting tougher on immigration. The overall effect of this line of reasoning is to make concessions to UKIP in the hope that by doing so Labour will win back lost votes.

Who is voting for UKIP?

Khan’s strategy only makes sense if it can be shown that Labour voters are turning to UKIP in significant numbers. The evidence just doesn’t support this view. In fact, Lord Ashcroft’s poll, commissioned straight after the election on 22nd May, proves the opposite. Ashcroft found that over 50% of UKIP’s support came from disillusioned Conservative voters. Ex-Labour voters consisted of only 15% of UKIP’s support.

The results of the European elections support these figures. In all UK European Parliamentary constituencies, Labour has either held its seats, or gained more. UKIP’s new seats in the European Parliament have come at the expense of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The people voting for UKIP are not disillusioned Labour voters who think Labour ‘got it wrong’ on immigration. They are overwhelmingly ex-Tories, not to mention ex-BNP and English Democrats

Although there are clearly some exceptions to the rule (for example, Stocksbridge and East and West Ecclesfield in my home town, Sheffield), the same goes for the local elections. Whilst much has been made of the results in Rotherham, the decline in the Labour vote hardly accounts for the surge in UKIP support. As Left Futures points out it is notable that the Rotherham seats won by UKIP were those in which there were no ‘credible, established oppositions’.  Bob Pitt has similarly argued that the movement of Tory voters to UKIP has meant that in some key marginals in the general election, Labour is now more, not less, likely to win.

The most significant evidence supporting the claim that UKIP are eating into Labour’s base comes from Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, Nottingham and Manchester based academics. In their analysis of UKIP voters, Revolt on the Right, they give evidence to suggest that UKIP’s support comes from older (55+), white, male, blue-collar workers. Goodwin and Ford argue that this working class demographic, who they call ‘the left behind’, is more traditionally associated with the Labour Party electoral base, so Labour should be worried.

However, Britain has a long tradition of working-class Conservatism. It’s therefore not enough to say that UKIP attracts working class support. It’s also necessary to demonstrate that UKIP is supported by loyal Labour voters who have recently switched to UKIP, rather than disgruntled working class Tories dissatisfied with Cameron’s Conservatives.

Goodwin and Ford recognise this factor in their research. After declaring that UKIP’s ‘recent recruits have mostly been former Conservative voters’ (Revolt on the Right, p. 170-1), they investigate long term voting patterns to establish whether or not UKIP voters are lifelong working class Tories, or if they were once Labour supporters who switched to the Conservatives then switched again to UKIP. The results of this investigation are inconclusive:

[W]ithout more information about the past voting habits and current ideological leanings of UKIP voters, it is hard to say for certain which group [‘Old’ Labour voters or working class Tories] predominates (Revolt on the Right, p.175).

Goodwin and Ford’s claim that there is a UKIP incursion onto Labour’s traditional support has been much trumpeted in the media. However – by their own admission – it’s not clear from their evidence that this is true. What is clear is that UKIP are currently taking their votes from the Conservatives not Labour. The results of the European elections supports this view.

The consequences of conceding to racism

If Khan – and those who agree with him – are actually pursuing ex-Tory voters with their move to the right on immigration, the results would be disastrous. It is unlikely that these voters will suddenly switch to Labour. Why, if you have never done so before, would you vote for a Party you think has been “soft” on immigration, when you could vote for a real anti-immigration party like UKIP or the Tories?

The real danger is that “getting tough” on immigration will put off voters that would naturally support Labour at the next election: ex-Lib Dem voters, for example, or voters who turned to the Lib Dems from Labour because they believed the former to be a “left” or “liberal” alternative. It may also encourage yet more of Labour’s core vote to sit on their hands at the next election, causing them to join the 6 million voters who left the Party under Blair and Brown.

Most importantly, in addition to being electorally disastrous for Labour, conceding to UKIP’s racist anti-immigrant agenda will only shift the political landscape further to the Right and entrench racist views on immigration. It would hand initiative to the right in a race to the bottom, with UKIP continuously making new reactionary demands.

UKIP is racist

In what is effectively a rhetorical move to prettify an accomodation to racism, Labour politicians have argued that they are listening to the legitimate concerns of the ‘left behind’ voters Goodwin and Ford identify. Indeed, Goodwin himself has argued that UKIP isn’t a racist party because the majority of its voters subscribe to a civic, rather than racial, view of national identity. According to this view, UKIP isn’t racist because its members think that British identity is defined by your values, not the colour of your skin.

But to anyone who has followed the evolution of racism in Britain, it is precisely on the field of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ that modern racism is played out. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Muslim community is singled-out for special treatment by politicians and the media because – it’s claimed – they do not accept “western values” and will not integrate into British society. In the mainstream media, Muslims are not persecuted because of their skin colour but in the civic “our values, not theirs” sense that Goodwin describes.This makes it no less racist.

It’s no accident that in a study by Goodwin and Ford, UKIP voters, alongside BNP voters, overwhelmingly identify Islam as a threat to western civilisation (64%) and that UKIP has grown as its representatives have made overtly Islamophobic comments. UKIP has postured over not letting ex-members of the BNP into the Party, but in interviews with Goodwin, Nigel Farage has made no secret of the party’s attempt to court the BNP vote.

Farage’s recent comments in an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien should dispel any illusions about UKIP’s racist attitude to Eastern European immigrants (the interview should be required watching for journalists on how to deal with UKIP). When asked what the differences are between someone like Farage’s German wife moving in next door, and a family of Romanians, Farage refused to answer the question, ominously stating ‘you know the difference’. UKIP are explicit in saying that the problem isn’t immigration per se, but ‘the quality’ of who is immigrating. Presumably this means Romanians are “low quality” whereas Germans are “high quality”. We can label this distinction a kind of ‘civic’ nationalism, or we can call it for what it is: a racist typology of “good” and “bad” immigrants.

Clearly, UKIP is not a fascist party and it cannot be tackled in the same way as the BNP . However, any discussion over the different tactics that are needed to defeat UKIP must start from the strategic assumption that UKIP is a racist party and that concessions to its agenda are concessions to racism.

Labour needs a positive message

For Labour to pander to UKIP’s racism would be electorally disastrous for them and it would plunge the debate on immigration – which is already plumbing the depths of reaction – further into the mire.

The right-wing vote is saturated by UKIP and the Tories. Rather than attempt to court it, Labour needs to give voters who are not attracted to these parties something to vote for; rather than concede to racism, it should champion the reality of modern multicultural Britain; and rather than attacking immigrants, it should stand up for immigration and the benefits it brings.

This positive message would appeal to a layer of the electorate that has also been ‘left behind’ by the race to the bottom in the immigration debate; to Liberal Democrat voters who are appalled by the party’s coalition with the Tories; to Green voters who left Labour, fed up with its march to the right; and to ex-Labour voters who sit on their hands because they are sick of voting ‘with a clothes peg on their nose’.

The Labour Party will never be tougher on immigration than the racist rump of the Conservative Party. For its own electoral fortunes, the voters it has left behind, and the quality of the debate on immigration, it should stop trying.