'My priority is a new political party and movement in this country that wants to stand up for the interests of ordinary people.’ These were the words of UKIP’s grinning frontman, Nigel Farage, on the BBC the weekend after UKIP won 139 new council seats in the local elections. During the interview, the man who so dislikes immigrants, the EU and wind turbines presented himself as genuinely anti-establishment, distinguishing his party from the elite and remote Westminster vacuum by emphasising the working-class background of some candidates and describing himself as ‘someone who wants to do something’ rather than ‘someone who wants to be something’.
Of course, Farage would love to be part of the Westminster elite every bit as much as the next grey-suited, privately-schooled City trader. His own background is about as establishment as you get. And it didn’t take much by way of dirt-digging to uncover some UKIP candidates as the knife-in-teeth baring holocaust deniers that are so familiar to sub-cultures of the right. It’s clear that UKIP is sprinkling the kind of people who might have flirted with the BNP a few years ago with Farage fairy dust and providing them with a place of amelioration.
Right-wing Tories are using UKIP’s election success as a convenient reason to advance their own anti-EU, anti-immigration agenda, but there are other elements of Farage’s success that are worth reflecting on. In particular, UKIP’s focus on issues that affect people’s daily lives; Farage’s frequent citing of class; and the way he has separated himself from the austerity-obsessed political mainstream. While this can all be dismissed as a cynical bandwagon hitch, Farage is adept at making it look sincere. In doing so he is occupying space that should be the terrain of the left.
The insipid ‘one nation’-ism Ed Miliband took from the Tories will go no way to establishing Labour as a party that can challenge the elite; it is just a bland endorsement of a slightly less painful cuts agenda. The Green Party is articulating something different: a vision of social and environmental justice that challenges the market economy, rather than being co-opted by it. Yet despite this, its councillors have still acted as austerity enforcers at the local level, albeit unwillingly.
Recently in Brighton and Hove, where a minority administration runs the first Green-led council in Britain, a dispute over low-paid council employees’ wages caused a rift between the local Green Party and Green council leader Jason Kitcat. The experiences in Brighton have not so far provided an inspiring example of the difference a Green council could make, especially when compared with the resistance of some Labour councillors during the 1980s battles over rate-capping (see Mike Marqusee, page 14).
Many parts of the left have sought to offer an anti-establishment alternative outside party political spheres. The Occupy movements formed in an explosion of popular energy that was directed against a corporate co-option of politics. Other campaigns, such as Boycott Workfare and Fuel Poverty Action, begin with people’s lived experiences (either of unemployment or the inability to heat their homes) and offer sharp critiques of the corporate capture of the state. Last year, Fuel Poverty Action held a demo with about 50 members of the Greater London Pensioners’ Association. The group, along with No Dash For Gas, recently attended the pensioners’ AGM, where a motion was passed that condemned both the deaths of thousands of people every year from fuel poverty and the extortionate profits of the big six energy companies.
Such grounded struggles are seen by many on the UK left as the foundation for wider change. With attacks on every front, local struggles are making links and, at least informally, see themselves as engaged in a wider, systemic resistance. Too often, though, there is a gulf between these groups and national initiatives that do not always pay enough attention to the transformative potential of what is emerging from grassroots groups.
Hilary Wainwright urges us to pay more attention to the strategic importance of the local. Potentially it is where the forces for radical and egalitarian change are able to reach out to a wider public, including some of the people UKIP appeals to. It is here that there is an underestimated potential for the left to challenge dominant ideas. But these struggles need support and wider platforms.
Farage only talks of taking on big business, but groups like Boycott Workfare and Fuel Poverty Action actually do so. When the People’s Assembly gathers on 22 June, the organisers would do well to make sure it is a space in which the demands of working-class communities are heard and where the people assembling are able to plan a resistance that challenges the day-to-day impacts of capital. That would be a real anti-establishment politics.
Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.