The debate abound UKIP swirls unabated after its success in winning the Clacton by-election from the Conervatives, and in almost winning Heywood and Middleton from Labour. There remains considerable confusion about the nature of the UKIP phenomenon (the clarifying work of academics such as Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford has been useful here). There is even greater confusion over how to challenge it. I have been writing about UKIP and immigration for a while now. So I thought I would pull together the main themes of that writing, to set out the main arguments from my previous articles about UKIP and the challenge that it poses.
1 Is UKIP a protest vote or a lasting challenge to the mainstream? Both and neither.
Some insist that UKIP garnered merely a temporary midterm protest vote. Others see Nigel Farage’s outfit as a lasting threat to which the main parties must respond by adopting more hardline policies, especially on Europe, immigration and welfare.
Both views are right. And both are wrong. UKIP does draw the protest vote. But the very character of the protest vote is changing.
The traditional party of protest in Britain was, of course, the Liberal Democrats (or the Liberals as they were before they got hitched to the SDP). Once a party of government, the failure of the Liberals to win power for most of the twentieth century made it an ideal vehicle for the protest vote – a safe, mainstream party to which to turn at relatively irrelevant elections as a means of temporarily expressing dissatisfaction with one of the main parties before returning to the fold; a way sending a message but not of upsetting the system.
Once the Liberal Democrats became part of the Coalition government after the 2010 election, they could no longer play this role. But something more fundamental has also changed. The protest vote is no longer about teaching the main parties a lesson. It is about disenchantment with, and disengagement from, the whole political process. Voters are not saying ‘I am voting for another party at this election to make you listen to me’. Increasingly many are saying, ‘You will never listen to me, so there is no point in voting for you at all’.
From Reflections on UKIP – And on Reflections About UKIP, 9 May 2013.
2 What the success of groups like UKIP expresses is a new faultline in Europe’s political map.
What groups such as UKIP and the FN express is a new faultline in Europe’s political map. The postwar political system, built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is being dismantled. Not only has this created new space for the populists, it is also transforming the very character of political space. In this post-ideological age, as politics has become reduced largely to a question of technocratic management rather than of social transformation, as mainstream parties abandon both their ideological attachments and their traditional constituencies, so large sections of the public has become disengagement from the political process, widening the gap between voters and the elite, and fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics. That is why so many of the populist and far-right groups position themselves as ‘anti-political’ parties.
The new political faultline in Europe is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the post-ideological, post-political world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. These kinds of divisions have always existed, of course. In the past, however, that sense of dispossession and voiceless could be expressed politically, particularly through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. Economic crisis, the collapse of manufacturing industry, the atomisation of society, the neutering of trade unions, the cutting by social democratic parties of their ties with their old working class base, the scorn with which mainstream society today today of the idea of class-based politics – all have helped cut the bonds of solidarity and identity that once shaped working class communities, marginalized labour as a political voice, leaving many feeling voiceless and detached from the political process.
From Europe’s New Faultline, 18 May 2014.
3 It is not simply through rightwing populist parties that such disenchentment with mainstream politics is being expressed.
For many Scottish nationalists, UKIP represents much of what they loathe about Britain, an expression of the suffocating conservatism from which they seek to break free. Yet many in England back UKIP for much the same reason that many in Scotland support independence: because they feel disengaged from mainstream politics, marginalized and voiceless.
Not just in Scotland, nor even just in Britain, but throughout Europe, there is a crisis of political representation, a growing sense of political institutions as remote and corrupt, of voters’ concerns being ignored. One manifestation of this has been rising support for populist parties. Scottish nationalism is another expression of this public mood. It is not that the Scottish National Party and UKIP have the same kinds of policies. What connects them is a disconnect between the public and the political class.
From Scotland, Clacton and the Politics of Disaffection, 26 September 2014.
4 The narrowing of the political sphere has meant that economic and social issues have come to be seen through a cultural lens.
The ‘left behind’ have suffered largely because of economic and political changes. But they have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of the ‘left behind’ have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. As the politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, so even the ‘working class’ has come to be seen primarily as a cultural category. The irony is that those who lost out in the breakdown of class-based and ideologically-driven politics now turn to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Because discontent is expressed in cultural, rather than, political terms, so it is often conveyed through hostility to immigration. As class identity has come to be seen as a cultural attribute, so those regarded as culturally different (the ‘Other’) have come to be perceived as threats. Immigration has become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters. The EU, meanwhile, has become symbolic of the democratic deficit in many people’s lives, and of the distance (social, political and physical) between ordinary people and the political class.
From Europe’s New Faultline, 18 May 2014.
5 Immigration is not responsible for the ‘left behind’ being left behind. But it has become the mirror through which many perceive their problems.
Consider, for instance, one of the key issues that [David] Goodhart raises, that of the ‘left behind’ white working class. The white working class, he argues, has lost its culture, its communities, its sense of identity, its bonds of solidarity, and its place in the national story. For many whites, Goodhart writes in The British Dream, ‘large-scale immigration has, indeed, been experienced as a loss, either directly because they lived in a neighbourhood that was rapidly changed by it or indirectly because their working class culture and institutions seemed to be pushed aside by the same market forces that then ushered in the newcomers’. [p257]
The transformation of working class life, the erosion of the sense of working class identity, the breaking of bonds of solidarity, the marginalization of labour as a political voice – all are real phenomena, but all have roots in economic and political changes. In the 1950s manual workers accounted for 70 per cent of the male workforce. Four out of ten workers were employed in manufacturing; a million worked in mining. 9.5 million people (40 per cent of employees) belonged to trade unions. All this incubated a sense of identity, rooted communities to a history and tradition, and bound them in a web of solidarity. The Labour Party still had strong links to the working class. The postwar consensus – the cross-party acceptance of Keynesianism, a ‘mixed economy’ and the welfare state – allowed trade union leaders to influence government policy.
All that is no more. The postwar consensus has been shattered, Britain’s manufacturing base has all but disappeared, trade unions have been neutered, the Labour party has largely cut its roots with its working class base, and the very idea of class-based politics derided. All this has helped cut the bonds of solidarity and identity that once shaped working class communities, leaving many feeling voiceless and detached from the political process…
Goodhart acknowledges much of this. ‘Social and economic change would have swept away the old working class ways even if there had been zero immigration’, he observes… So he accepts that immigration cannot be responsible for that [sense of] loss [felt my many within working class communities]. Rather immigration has come to be a means through which many perceive their loss. Immigrants have, in other words, become symbolic of that loss and of the change. The forces of globalization, or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party, are difficult to conceptualise. Your Bangladeshi or Jamaican neighbour is easy to see. Turning immigrants into symbols of change and loss has allowed people to transform the meaning of that transformation and the story of how it has come about.
From Immigration and Loss, 26 April 2013.
6 The panic in mainstream circles about UKIP and immigration has only helped further to fuel disenchantment about the mainstream.
What makes the mainstream assault on UKIP and the FN particularly ineffective is that at the same time as attacking them as racist, mainstream politicians have themselves assiduously fostered fears about immigration and adopted populist anti-immigration policies. All this has merely confirmed the belief that the populists were right all along. It has engorged cynicism about mainstream politicians. And since immigration has not been responsible for the left behind being left behind, it has done nothing to assuage the sense of marginalization and voicelessness that many feel. Indeed, by stoking new fears about immigration, it has merely deepened the sense of grievance.
From Europe’s New Faultline, 18 May 2014.
7 Tackling UKIP requires us both to stop dismissing UKIP voters as racist and to challenge their ideas about immigration.
We need to stop being so obsessed by the politicians and the parties, and start dealing with the issues that lead many voters to support them. Yes, many of UKIP and FN policies are repellent, and many of their leaders hold obnoxiously racist, sexist and homophobic views. Many FN and UKIP supporters are hardcore racists. But many others are drawn to such parties for very different reasons – because these seem to be the only organizations that speak to their grievances and express their frustrations with mainstream politics. Given this, simply exposing UKIP or FN politicians as racists will change little, especially given that virtually all politicians are busy stoking fears about immigration. It is not that such exposés should not be done, but that they are futile if wielded as the principal tactic.
Engaging with the concerns of potential UKIP or FN voters, rather than simply dismissing them as racists, does not mean, however, caving into reactionary arguments or pandering to prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly. Challenging the idea, for instance, that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Muslims constitute a social problem for the West. It means also challenging the rhetoric and policies not simply of UKIP or the FN but also of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, of the Parti Socialiste, the UMP and the Nouveau Centre. It is the anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the mainstream parties that make people receptive to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populists.
From Europe’s New Faultline, 18 May 2014.
8 We will only be able to challenge popular ideas about immigration if we are able to reframe the debate.
Many, often on the left, accept that immigration is a good but worry that people are too irrational to understand. Hitting people with facts and figures, they suggest, will not help. We need to accept people’s emotional opposition to immigration. If we do not engage with people’s anxieties, they argue, the left’s project will get shouted down by rightwing and populist anti-immigration voices.
It is true that simply presenting facts and figures will change few minds. This is not, however, because people are irrational or because they are indifferent to facts, but because facts are always understood within a particular political, social or philosophical framework. Since the issue of immigration has been framed in such a way that both sides accept immigrants as a problem, so it is inevitable that people will understand facts and figures within that context.
If we want the facts and figures to have an impact we need first to reframe the immigration debate. There is not much point in showing that immigrants do not come to sponge off the welfare state, or that they benefit the economy, if we have already accepted that immigrants are a problem. We need rather to view immigration from an entirely different perspective. We need to acknowledge the movement of peoples as neither an aberration, nor as an evil to be tolerated, but as an inherent part of human life. We need to view the social changes that immigration brings not as a loss of something precious, but also as the gain of something valuable, the creation of a more open, vibrant, cosmopolitan society. We should regard the clashes and conflicts in ideas and values that immigration often creates not as something to be feared and minimised but as something to be prized, the basis of social engagement, the means by which we can break out of our narrow cultural boxes and create possibility of a common language of citizenship.
Adopting such an approach is difficult because it runs counter to so much of what is regarded as social wisdom. That is why it is all the more important to view immigration in this fashion. To do so requires, however, conviction and courage. And those are two virtues noticeable by their absence in contemporary politics.
From The Facts, the Myths and the Framing of Immigration, 30 March 2013.
The paintings as LS Lowry’s ‘Our Town’ and Banksy’s immigration mural in Clacton, which was soon painted over by the local council