UKIP’s crisis – a moment for the left

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 04:  United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farage, wipes his eyes whilst viewing the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' installation at Tower of London on November 4, 2014 in London, England.    'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins, made up of 888,246 ceramic poppies fills the moat of the Tower of London, to commemorate the First World War.  Each ceramic poppy represents an allied victim of the First World War and the display is due to be completed by Armistice Day on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage and the racist populists of UKIP are in crisis. However serious that turns out to be, now is a moment of opportunity for the left.

Since the general election UKIP has lost a quarter of its 50,000 members. Donations – which came largely from a small number of businessmen – were £3 million in the four months running up to May’s general election.

But, according to the Daily Mail, “in the three months since the election, the money coming in from donors and public funds is believed to have been less than £200,000”. Staff have been sacked and wages are going unpaid. Its largest donor has defected and is funding his own pro-business campaign for a No vote in the referendum on EU membership due before the end of 2017.

That campaign is right wing. But it is far from the case that the coming months of intense argument over Europe are to be polarised between David Cameron on the one hand, and Nigel Farage on the other. The official campaigns are shaping up differently, and that’s before the left concerts an intervention – which I hope we do.

The seemingly inexorable rise of Farage and the “Kippers” since the autumn of 2013 has shuddered to a halt. Tensions between its leading figures and Farage are resurfacing. The UKIP crisis is one sign of the volatility of British politics and of the space which now exists for the left to win wider support in society.

One reason for the mess UKIP is in is the failure of Farage to get elected at the general election. UKIP, despite getting 12.7 percent of the vote nationally, was unable to concentrate its support sufficiently to get more than Tory defector Douglas Carswell returned as an MP. That kind of failure has a disproportionate impact on parties – especially of the right – which situate themselves as an insurgent break with the establishment. UKIP thrived on being seen to go from success to success, greatly enhanced by the media indulging the party, and Farage in particular, thus creating an aura of an inexorable onward march.

There are ideologically committed forces within UKIP – including hailing from the historic far right. But the party as a whole is characterised by an incoherent right wing populism. It is Thatcherite in its support for the free market and big business. Its central policy of withdrawal from the EU, however, is opposed by big business. It lacks the political coherence of, for example, the national-conservative Law and Justice Party, which recently won the Polish general election.

What UKIP did offer to those joining it and becoming, over night, activists was the chance of quick electoral rewards – attractive to opinionated Daily Mail and Daily Express types, saloon bar/golf club bores who fancy themselves as latter-day Winston Churchills or Enoch Powells.

When those victories proved unforthcoming in May, there was little by way of a cohesive core to be turned towards a medium term strategy of consolidating support in the absence of winning seats, and all the financial and other rewards that go with that, including vainglorious public profile. The dream of being a little Churchill or Powell in a council licensing committee or featured in a splash in a local newspaper read by few other than your mates down the local Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse.

UKIP depended for cohesion on forward momentum. The weakness hit hard when that momentum was halted. Here, the strategic focus by anti-racists and left wing activists on concentrating a campaign to damage the UKIP vote in its target areas – particularly Thanet, where Farage stood – has proved its worth.

The immediate recovery strategy after the omnishambles of Farage standing down and then standing again as leader was this. The party had mainly taken former Tory votes. Its core support over the years has come from the more “plebeian” hard right of the Tory base – people who were once squirearchs or their puffed up retainers.

In May – as before – it demonstrated it could also take some votes from Labour. More importantly it could emerge in areas of the north of England as second place to Labour, taking many votes from the imploding Liberal Democrats and from Tories voting tactically. A lot of Labour’s vote in the north stayed at home.

With Labour itself in an enormous crisis in May, UKIP trailed a “northern strategy” for council elections next year, through the next European election and towards 2020. Its aim was to beat Labour in its heartlands.

Strategically, if it could eclipse the Labour Party in enough of those places it could credibly claim to be a national opposition to Cameron, reconfiguring the political map way to the right. And it could pose itself as a useful vehicle for British capital in defeating Labour and potentially giving social weight to a future hard right coalition government.

That all depended on the Labour Party responding to the election by returning to the Blairite programme and profile which lost is so much working class support following 1997. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership. His campaign was characterised by massive public meetings. They overshadowed the Farage roadshow of earlier in the year (dependent on a lot of right wing media boostering, particularly in the local and regional press).

Corbyn’s meetings were not only in the big northern cities, but in places such as Exeter, Essex and the south coast. The Labour Party’s national membership has doubled since the general election.

Labour won a recent council byelection in the south west of England on a big swing from UKIP. But the impact of the Corbyn victory is beyond the narrow measure of transfers of votes and support directly between parties. Voter identification with parties in England remains weak.

That was part of UKIP’s problem. Beyond its relatively small core of support, most of its votes came more out of a negative rejection of the “old parties and politics”. It remains to be seen – in particular we will have to see the result of the forthcoming Oldham parliamentary byelection – but there are good reasons to believe that it is the nature of the Corbyn surge, not just the fact of his winning the leadership, which has the potential to be very damaging to UKIP.

The Corbyn surge and the politics of immigration 

Jeremy is strongly identified as an outsider challenging the old Blair-Brown-Cameron-Clegg (remember him) conventions of a mainstream politics detached in form as well as content from the majority of people.

The mantle of an ordinary bloke (which Farage the banker never was) upsetting convention and talking some common sense with added honesty may be shifting in the eyes of a large number of people to the leader of the British Labour Party. That has been symbolised over the last few weeks in the tone of the clashes between Corbyn and Cameron in the Commons.

But the position that Jeremy is starting to stake out is not some empty populism, a version of the, in fact rightwards leaning, Blue Labour recipe for recovering support through adapting to xenophobic and anti-welfare populist themes. Corbyn spoke last week at a 700-strong public meeting with the title: “Refugees Welcome Here”.

That immigration cost the Labour Party the 2010 election became a dogma among the pugilist, in essence Daily Mail with a red rosette, right of the Labour Party – as represented by Simon Danczuk MP – and, slightly differently, among Blairites enthralled to corporate business. With even less justification some claim it contributed to this year’s defeat.

But while immigration – thanks exactly to Labour’s pandering to the right wing media – did feature in 2010 as high in people’s “concerns” – its impact on determining how people actually voted was far from direct or decisive.

There was and remains a significant difference in polling between the answers given to two related but different questions: Is immigration a problem for the country? And: Is immigration a problem for you and your family?

Significantly fewer people say it is a problem for them than do say it is a problem for the country. That suggests that people are likely to reflect the overwhelming media and mainstream “common sense” about immigration in the abstract (a problem for “the country”). After all, what is good for the country is quintessentially a political question. And the media-mainstream political answer is that immigration is a huge problem.

But their own experience and their own assessment of what is a problem for them are informed by other concerns. Here, standard of living, pay and job security feature very highly. Immigration for most people is not a concrete problem of everyday life. (Of course, racist political figures of all stripes do seek to intervene in local and concrete issues with a racialised explanation which can in certain circumstances take off. The British National Party’s localist strategy from 2001 to 2010 epitomised that.)

Where immigration was cited in 2010 in surveys of those who had abandoned Labour as a reason for doing so it was not immigration in general, but the “management of immigration” which people said was the problem. That could mean many things and it would be wrong to hang strong political conclusions on a weakly supported interpretation.

But one meaning was very salient in the official political debate at the time: that Labour had not anticipated and not prepared for the number of EU migrants who would come to Britain in the years of economic expansion up to 2008. They had not told the truth. The right wing media’s push against Labour honed in on that and connected it to Labour “losing control” of the national debt as well and being “untrustworthy”.

So where immigration appeared to have an impact on propensity to vote for a party of the right it was when it was coupled with the impact of austerity: health cuts, the squeeze on welfare, job insecurity, inequality. Labour’s failure on those in 2010 was central to its losing the election. Immigration was not the reason for Labour’s electoral failure; Labour was seen as a failure on everything, including immigration.

A more complex picture thus emerges in which the salience of anti-immigration rhetoric beyond a hard racist core lies in

1) a framing of the general problems of society. It provides an alternative and crude overall explanation for the crisis, economic and social, to the equally populist and arresting, but never articulated by Gordon Brown, Ed Balls or Ed Miliband, explanation: blame the bankers.

2) a kind of political portmanteau. Into one compartment of the suitcase is slotted the pervasive media “problem” of immigration as a “national issue”, into the other, a concrete real problem affecting someone’s life.

Farage’s (and, amongst others now, Theresa May’s) propaganda and political intervention was structured inside both those scaffolds.

It was very successful. That was not primarily down to Farage – though he and UKIP strategists were very energetic between 2013 and now. But what he did do was to offer a fake anti-establishment focus for the kind of racialised and xenophobic politics which were being pumped out by that pillar of the political establishment – the Tory Party.

Additionally, Labour from 2008 onwards systematically accommodated to the media-amplified “common sense”. There was no counter pole in the minds of most people to the anti-immigration, Islamophobic and anti-multicultural “national picture” painted by the media and both front benches.

The answer to those who claim – not for Blairite reasons but in the vain hope of evading the immigration issue as simply territory for the right – that the strategic response should be to talk of “bread and butter” issues with vaguely humanitarian rhetoric on refugees is two words: Ed Miliband. That is essentially what the former Labour leader tried to do. It failed.

The potential now, at this moment of crisis for UKIP, is not for a war of attrition (in which we don’t give battle on a central front of the government and the right – immigration) but rather for a sharp confrontation which can change the whole national picture.

Radical answers on racism 

The scale and breadth of the solidarity shown over refugees over the summer show something of the potential. It was a minority. But it was a big minority.

The potential is also demonstrated in the fact that within days Jeremy Corbyn – and what we may loosely call the Corbyn face of the Labour Party – was seen to inflict a defeat on the government over tax credits and then frontbencher Diane Abbott spoke cogently in defence of not only political refugees, but also the much derided “economic migrant”.

Of course, it is far from the case that everyone who agrees with the left in opposing cuts to tax credits will also agree with us over immigration. But conflicting opinions and consciousness are often bundled together in the minds of people when they give their political allegiance – at elections, in identification with parties and with supporting political leaders.

Here, it seems to me, that a critical aspect is sustaining the sense of an anti-establishment insurgency – and the call for a break from the old politics – which was the zeitgeist of the Corbyn surge. It is in seeking to derail that that the Labour right are playing with fire.

The pro-refugee mobilisations in the summer – which were the largest ever specifically pro-migrant demonstrations in British history – point to a potentially large minority who can be won to a clear left position on immigration and can feel confident to argue it themselves. They won’t be won on sympathy and humanitarianism alone. The immediacy of the image of Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach fades. The other side constructs a narrative and political argument. Part of it – with mock expressions of empathy – is that we must think with our heads, not our hearts; that “charity begins at home”; that for every drowned toddler there are many other “bogus” asylum seekers; and so on…

There is a wider layer of people who will accept to some degree or another the dominant anti-migrant arguments but who identify with Corbyn – and thereby the left. It would be a disaster not to engage that wider layer to win them away from the right wing ideology on migration.

Cameron is launching his platform for renegotiation of Britain’s treaties with the EU. It includes a demand for banning EU nationals from claiming in-work benefits for four years. That is – tax credits. He will run the campaign hard.

If the left, the anti-austerity campaigns such as the People’s Assembly, and trade union movement restrict ourselves to talking about tax credits without confronting head on Cameron’s attempt to frame it as an immigration question we run the risk of finding that at least a part of the bitterness at the proposed cut is perversely captured by the Tories and, through xenophobic scapegoating, turned against us.

Of course, if the Labour right succeeds – and if the left fails to turn the Corbyn surge into a serious force which can win real gains – then UKIP may also bounce back.

But it is not now the dynamic force in British politics, dragging the mainstream to the right. In fact, the central driver of racialised rhetoric even during Farage’s rise came from the mainstream, with UKIP – posing as an anti-establishment force – acting as populist megaphone.

The heart of the crisis for UKIP is that its claim to be an anti-systemic, ever growing force has been badly dented. What remains is the continued pumping out of anti-immigrant and racist ideology from the Tory party and much of the media. The most serious attempt to carve out a racist populist space in the last few weeks has come from Theresa May, making a thinly veiled claim to be the next Tory leader.

Under those circumstances, an anti-racist strategy which focuses on UKIP does not make sense (though in certain localities where it has councillors efforts to undermine them do make sense as part of a wider strategy to build the left and social resistance).

The fact that it is Cameron, May and the Tories who are demonstrably at the centre of pushing anti-immigrant and other forms of racism is actually a strategic advantage for anti-racists. There is a near complete alignment between the main political forces pushing xenophobia and the government trying to cut tax credits and much more.

The left has the potential to occupy the territories of both cosmopolitan, anti-racist sentiment and visceral contempt for a haughty establishment. Strategically, that means an anti-racism which is also anti-systemic.

Concrete strategies can emerge only from detailed collective discussion within the movement and the left. It’s towards that end that I offer a few general points:

1) the tens of thousands of often young people who joined the Corbyn surge are potentially an active layer. The launch of the Momentum campaign is a positive and practical recognition of that and the fact that their activity is far from confined to internal battles in the Labour Party. The left needs to gear itself towards the prize of winning those tens of thousands to be as confident and clear over immigration, in their own words and own milieux, as, for example, Diane Abbott was at the public meeting last week.

2) whatever organisational forms specifically pro-migrant and anti-racist campaigning adopts (an open and fluid question) those issues need further to become organically part of the movements and struggles which already exist – from opposing Tory militarism to stopping the cut to tax credits. The junior doctors’ campaign has widespread traction. Explicitly making the case in the course of it that the NHS depends on migrant health workers of all kinds is one way in which a pro-immigration, pro-multicultural sentiment can become generalised.

3) these arguments will not make themselves. They require a concerted effort by the left to push them hard and to build the confidence of those around us to do the same. To make arguments at a mass level, you need a core which is 100 percent clear on the question. We need a bigger core. We also need that core turned outwards to convince others, not ghettoised.

4) the more it is the Tories who are seen to be driving anti-immigrant racism the more traction arguments which tie opposition to racism to opposing the government and big business can have. Class-based arguments over racism are not the assertion of some folksy, colour-blind common interest among working people. They are political. They are about providing a different frame from the media’s xenophobia – one of radical confrontation with the government, the state and capital.

5) campaigners against Farage had to put a lot of effort into debunking his claim to be an anti-establishment outsider. That is unnecessary when it comes to David Cameron, Theresa May and the Tory cabinet. There is a cultural gap between them and the lives of most people. In that, opposition there is space to develop an oppositional, cosmopolitan culture. The “I Am An Immigrant” poster and billboard initiative by a consortium of campaigns and organisations during the election was a good example of that might be developed.

A pre-condition for moving from general points and arguments to effective strategies and campaigns is for the whole of the serious left to change gear. We’ve been used to being on the defensive over the politics of immigration and racism. The tempo of struggle has been serial campaigns to resist surges and offensives by the far right.

There remains a need for coalitions to meet those threats, whose abeyance will only prove temporary. But there is also, I’d suggest, at this moment a space to go onto the front foot ideologically – to win a much broader social base for clearly pro-migrant and militantly anti-racist positions.

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