Ukip candidates appear to have been in competition with each other to come up with the most offensive comments. Sean Ledwith investigates
Ukip candidates for the upcoming EU and local elections are seemingly engaged in an arms race of rhetorical stupidity. They appear to be playing a bizarre game of one-upmanship regarding who can make the most crassly offensive comment. It is becoming near impossible to turn on the television news or log onto social media without learning of another grotesque anachronism coming out of the mouth of a member of what we might call the 'United Kingdom Immigration Phobes'. Within the space of one week at the end of April, we have had "Islam reminds me of the 3rd Reich"; "Islam is organised crime under religious camouflage" and "Lenny Henry should emigrate to a black country. He does not have to live with whites"; all from three different Ukip candidates for the 2014 elections.
It is not as if we should make some allowance as these are novices untrained in the art of media management. Ukip officials who have somehow succeeded in gaining elected office are no better. At the beginning of the same month Ukip county councillor Peter Lagoda from Cambridgeshire was forced to quit as he admitted to describing his sister to the firefightersas a 'w*g' and spoke about his "Mongol relatives having children with slanty eyes". Lagoda was originally unapologetic and could not understand what the fuss was about: "I looked in the dictionary and a person from Mongolia is called a Mongol. It's always the British that bastardize words".
The official launch of the Ukip EU election campaign last month was also blighted by thinly-veiled manipulation of racist rhetoric and imagery. Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, was quite happy to stand in front of the party's 2014 billboard posters and delude himself that they do not have a racist connotation. One portrays an East European-looking builder with an outstretched hand and the message: 'British workers are hit hard by unlimited foreign labour'. Another features a giant fingerpointing at the observer and the caption: '26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?'
Farage himself has form this year in the crass comments competition beloved of Ukip members. Earlier this year, he sounded like a character from a 1970s sitcom that would be unrepeatable in the 21st century. Describing his experiences on a train from central London, he recalled: "It wasn’t until after we got past Grove Park that I could actually hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward?" Yes. Farage and the others obviously feel they have to raise theiroffensive game as the bar for crassness has been set by MEP Godfrey Bloom, the standard-bearer of Ukip idiocy until he went too far even for them last year. Bloom was thrown out of the party for using the word "sluts" in a conference meeting; however the party had somehow not see fit to sanction him when he had talked about bongo bongo land a few weeks earlier.
Heading for victory?
From the viewpoint of mainstream British public opinion, the astonishing and alarming aspect of these PR outrages is that not only have they failed to dent Ukip's apparent remorseless rise, but that the party is currently on course to come out on top in the European elections at the end of May. A YouGov poll at the end of April reports 31% of respondents stated they would vote for Ukip, putting them three points above Labour at 28%. The Tories came in third with 19%, ahead of the Liberal Democrats at 9% and the Greens at 8%.
It is quite feasible Ukip will not actually do this well on May 22nd but there can be no denying that we are witnessing the most significant development in fourth party politics since the rise of the SDP in 1981. The barely-believable prospect of a party that even Cameron in a rare moment of insight once described as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" coming first in a round of British elections might understandably make some on the left believe it is time to pass the ammunition and man the barricades.
The mounting sense of alarm is based not just on Ukip's probable success in the near future but also its tangible success in elections over the past couple of years. In November 2012, Ukip came second in by-elections in Middlesbrough and Rotherham, attaining around 20% of the turnout in the latter. In the Eastleigh by-election of March 2013 Farage's party pushed the Tories into third place, taking over a quarter of the vote.
The following May came the watershed breakthrough when they took nearly a quarter of all votes in county council elections, bringing their total number of councillors up from 8 to 139. A respected polling organisation had predicted them to win 40 seats at the time. On the same day, Ukip came second in a by-election in the Labour stronghold of South Shields with a similar proportion of the vote.
There was another second place finish for the party in February of this year when they took 18% of the vote in the Wythenshawe and Sale by-election. The party’s impact in working class constituencies places such as Rotherham and South Shields is a salutary reminder that the left cannot afford to dismiss Ukip as merely the Conservative Party in exile and stereotypically made up of red-faced golf-club bores.
Ukip and Labour
In an important new study, Robert Ford and Michael Goodwin have analysed how the party has also tapped into disillusionment among a section of Labour’s core support. The decline of manufacturing and unionisation since the Thatcher era has adversely affected the loyalty to Labour of some older, white working class males. Ford and Goodwin argue it was Ukip’s appeal to this demographic that accounted for its gradual rise in popularity since the start of this century. The authors state Labour and the wider labour movement must recognise this potential threat to a revival of the left:
"During an economically rightwing administration that is pursuing an austerity agenda, the left-behind social groups who stand to lose the most show greater enthusiasm for Ukip's radical right insurgency than for the party traditionally associated with state support for the most vulnerable".
Apart from the economic factors identified by the authors, the slippage of some Labour voters towards the right can also be seen as the legacy of New Labour’s abandonment of conviction politics, Gordon Brown’s disastrous flirtation with quasi-racist rhetoric in his ‘British jobs for British workers’ strategy, and the relentless tide of vile anti-immigration headlines pumped out by the tabloid press .
Ford and Goodwin are correct to highlight the capacity for growth of Ukip support among traditional Labour voters but that should not overshadow the reality that Cameron stands to lose more than Miliband due to the party’s electoral impact. Since the 2010 election, Ukip’s growth has been among traditional Tory voters rather than the type of people described by Ford and Goodwin.
The party is primarily a manifestation of the long-term quantitative decline of the Conservative Party. Since the high-tide of 1931 when the Tories achieved 55% of the vote, British capitalism’s party of choice has been on a downward slide. Of course, thanks to FPTP it has been a gradual slide and hasn’t prevented the party from forming the majority of governments in the postwar era; but not since 1992 has the party won over 10 million votes.
Cameron’s current predicament is obviously caused by his failure to manage more than 36% in 2010.Being marginally more intelligent than most in his party, Cameron’s political strategy since becoming leader in 2005 has been to broaden the Tory Party’s appeal across British society. Hence his initial hat-tipping to the centre-ground, dubbed ‘hug a hoodie’ or ‘hug a huskie‘ by the media.
The Thatcherite refuseniks that have baulked at this re-orientation have formed the core of Ukip membership and support over the past few years. A YouGov poll earlier this year of 4000 prospective Ukip voters indicated that just under a half voted Tory in the 2010 election, and less than 15% were former Labour voters.
This represents a significant reversal from the 2009 Euro elections in which Ukip received most of its support from traditional Labour voters. This also explains Farage’s success in last summer’s county council elections which took place in predominantly rural constituencies. It is apparent that the formation of the Cameron-led coalition in 2010 has decisively altered the nature of Ukip appeal.
Clegg’s treacherous collusion with the Tories has left the third party/protest vote niche open for exploitation by Farage. As Osbornomics has bitten into the working class Labour voters who might have flirted with Ukip pre-2010 are returning to the party as a safe haven against austerity.
Despite his failure to devise a clear alternative to the coalition, Miliband has at least consolidated Labour as a party that can feasibly win in the 2015 general election, if not form a parliamentary majority. For this reason, Cameron currently has most to fear from the rise of Ukip as they could potentially cost him victory next year. In this sense, they are playing a similar role to the Tea Party in the US as a nuisance from the right for the established party of the elite.
Farage’s corrosive effect on Tory support might lead some on the left to secretly express glee at his impact, paving the way as it potentially does to giving Miliband the keys to Number 10 in 2015. Ford and Goodwin’s study is a useful corrective to this shortsighted thinking. They warn that:
'Ukip is operating in the most favourable environment it has ever seen and if it breaks through there is widespread support for its brand of politics. Those on the centre left who are cheered by the collapse of the BNP could soon find themselves facing a much more potent and respected radical right competitor.'
As essentially unreconstructed Thatcherites, the party base is predicated on a challenge to the progressive politics of the 1960s that have become embedded as popular acceptance of social liberalism and multiculturalism. The 2013 Social Attitudes Survey indicated strengthening of a ‘live and live mentality’ including majority support for trends such as same sex relationships, cohabitation and unmarried couples having children. The survey, however, also identified mounting disillusionment with official politics. An astonishing 93% stated they never or rarely trusted the word of politicians.
The YouGov poll that predicted Ukip for 31% in the Euro elections came on the back of the Maria Miller resignation and illustrates how Farage has flourished in the post-expenses milieu. He has cleverly cashed in on this alienation from Westminster politics and insidiously cultivated a ‘man of the people’ image; hence the wearily ubiquitous photos of him holding a pint. He is assisted in this by the existence of the Oxbridge conveyor belt that is apparently the only source of leaders for the other parties. Obviously he downplays his own private education, career in the City and dodgy offshore bank accounts for the sake of this act.
More aircraft carriers?
The Ukip spin machine also necessitates a blurry focus on some particularly unpalatable aspects of party policy. These include a 31% flat rate of tax for all starting at £11K; cutting state spending to 1997 levels with loss of two million public sector jobs; a five-year freeze on immigration; scrapping the Human Rights Act; increase defence spending by 40% including three new aircraft carriers; and most bizarrely-ban schools from showing Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth!
Ukip policies such as these are a noxious amalgam of Islamophobia, Thatcherism, xenophobia, deluded nostalgia and outright absurdity. However, in the era of disillusionment with conventional politicians, the contradictory consciousness generated by capitalism can lead some working class voters to be attracted by simplistic solutions. So although Cameron has most to fear in the immediate future, the labour movement cannot afford to ignore or deride the appeal of Ukip.
Any revival of the left in the long term would necessarily mean exposing Ukip myths such as the notion that immigration has caused the recession. Not the least pleasing aspect of such a resurgence would be that hopefully we would never have to see a photo of Farage holding a pint again.