Taking on the ‘fruitcakes’: how can we stop UKIP?

The breakthrough for UKIP in May’s local elections raises the danger of a long‑term shift to the right in British politics. Richard Seymour considers where UKIP’s vote is coming from and how the left needs to respond

September 6, 2013
15 min read

ukip-lgUKIP leader Nigel Farage was chased by protesters in Edinburgh in May after trying to give a press conference in a pub in the city

Nigel Farage shouldn’t be smiling. He shouldn’t be on every other Question Time. And he shouldn’t be on the verge of a breakthrough. Yet, at the beginning of May, UKIP was definitely on the brink of making it. In county council elections, it had achieved 26 per cent of the vote. In national opinion polls, it was hovering around 20 per cent. Some surveys reported a subsequent fall back to 12 per cent. However, this is most likely a result of declining media profile, as pollsters that ‘remind’ voters who will be on the ballot tend still to detect support at around 20 per cent.

How can this be? The party has been aggressively ‘exposed’ in the press. The freshest of revelations included the identification of Nazis and cranks from other right-wing subcultures in UKIP’s midst, the republication of racist or eugenic views from social media, and screenshots of Holocaust-denying, weapons-brandishing, sieg-heiling members.

Nor is this simply a matter of a few of the hoi polloi. Leading members such as Roger Helmer MEP express views on homosexuality, rape and climate change that would tend to place them on the far right. Recently, UKIP voted in the European parliament to protect France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, against possible criminal investigation for racist hate speech. If anyone wanted to demonstrate that this is a party of bigoted ‘fruitcakes’, as Ken Clarke put it, they have the materials in abundance.

And yet: UKIP voters manifestly don’t care. At the very least not repelled by racism and homophobia, they are unsentimental about the types of alliances they find themselves in. This may place a limit on UKIP’s potential voting base. But a fifth of the electorate is not nothing; it is enough, at the least, to cause havoc for the Tories, and probably a lot more besides. It’s time to stop just ‘exposing’ UKIP and start examining them closely.

What is UKIP? The reactionary milieu

It’s time to stop just ‘exposing’ UKIP and start examining them closely

The United Kingdom Independence Party was founded in 1993 by the London School of Economics professor and former Liberal Party candidate Alan Sked. A practising historian, Sked was and remains a politically marginal figure. Nonetheless, he undertook this initiative just as tensions over Europe were introducing a profound cleavage to the Tory base. Thatcherism had always represented a coalition between socially liberal, pro‑European modernisers, and the old hard-line social authoritarian xenophobes. After the demise of the USSR, and with the expansion of the EU, UKIP came to represent one of the early homes of Tories defecting to the right over the issue.

UKIP, therefore, was always going to be a base for the various cranks and conspiracy theorists of the far right. Indeed, within just four years of setting up the party, Sked quit, complaining that his erstwhile comrades were ‘racist and [had] been infected by the far right’. And he maintained – inaccurately, as it turned out – that as a result of such alliances, the party would never escape the margins.

In fact, UKIP has succeeded precisely because of its ability to build and sustain a reactionary milieu under its canopy. This has enabled it to hegemonise the right-of-Tory scene, eclipsing rivals such as the Referendum Party and Veritas. The recent breakdown of the far right into temporarily enervated schisms has enhanced the appeal of UKIP as a potential home.

Unstable alliance

This does not make it an easy alliance. UKIP is nominally a libertarian party, which introduces a degree of hesitation and prevarication into some of its stances. Take the issue of LGBT rights. UKIP is grudgingly in favour of placing gay partnerships on an ‘equal footing’ with marriage. But as traditionalists and defenders of property, they cannot countenance any infringement of the church’s right to restrict the content of marriage. Their stance thus carefully does not preclude homophobia, even if it is hard to reconcile with the view of homosexuality as a disease.

The alliance holds for now. UKIP is in one sense a secular transmigration of the vital force of Thatcherism, a symptom of the break-up of conservatism. It is also a haven and respite for British fascism: refugees from the BNP populate its candidate lists and membership. This has been the case for many years; the same stories abounded during a peak of UKIP popularity in 2004. The inclusion of the far right is probably deliberate. The fascists may not represent the centre of gravity within UKIP, but they are an element of the fragile coalition the leadership is constructing; it needs to confederate sufficient forces to assail the Tories from the right, and displace the Cameronite centre.

What cements the disparate elements of UKIP is precisely a socially paranoid ideology of the hard right. Dominant in this complex ideological brew is a conspiratorial view of the EU as a sort of socialist plot, with Eurocrats riding on the backs of small businessmen, encouraging mass immigration and thus also the welfare state.

From this central paranoid conception radiate several connotative chains of meaning: linking the ‘EUSSR’ to the insecurity, social decay and supposed racial ambiguation (‘the whites are becoming black’) of the once ‘respectable’ working class; linking the social distress of the small businessperson to the dominance of metropolitan elites imposing policies that are ‘out of touch’ and do not bear on ‘common sense’ while giving the country away to every sort of foreigner; connecting the lack of democracy in the EU and increasingly in Britain with rationalist, ‘politically correct’ impositions from the continent – metric measurements and straight bananas being just the more absurd manifestations of this phenomenon – as opposed to the more venerable, grounded, gradually changing institutions of British life, rooted in centuries of tradition.

Who joins and votes UKIP?

The core of UKIP’s membership is solidly middle class. Godfrey Bloom MEP illustrated this well: ‘We have doctors who fancy themselves as tax experts, painters and decorators who know all about strategic defence issues, and branch chairmen, retired dentists, who understand the most intricate political solutions for the nation.’ Yet to build their present level of support, they have had to expand well beyond this home territory.

Voting UKIP is not simply an apolitical ‘protest’ vote against the status quo. Two key examples of recent UKIP successes have been in South Shields (26 per cent – see below), and Eastleigh (27.8 per cent). The first has been a Labour safe seat since 1935, and the latter is a Liberal Democrat heartland. In both seats, it was former Tory (and, to an extent, Lib Dem) voters that they had most success with. This underlines that the UKIP vote is consciously right wing.

An intriguing study of UKIP’s support in the 2009 European elections – a year in which UKIP’s success was accompanied by unprecedentedly strong results for the BNP – found that the party was well placed to expand its base dramatically and build a much more durable alliance than the BNP was able to. Using a large dataset, it identified two key types of UKIP voter: the ‘core loyalist’ and the ‘strategic defector’. The former consisted of certain groups of workers and lower middle-class supporters who responded to the populist, ‘anti-establishment’, Islamophobic agenda. The latter comprised wealthier middle‑class supporters who were traditionally Conservative but wanted to force the Tories further to the right.

farageGeographically, UKIP support was distinct from the BNP’s. While the BNP did well in the de-industrialised north, UKIP thrived in traditional Tory areas. While the BNP had won significant layers of working-class support, UKIP’s was more evenly spread among classes.

In the run-up to the May elections, a poll conducted for the Coalition for Marriage focused on the areas being contested by UKIP. The snapshot disclosed an electoral base that was much older, less educated, and slightly poorer on average than voters as a whole.

Seventy-one per cent of UKIP voters were over 40, and 48 per cent were over 60. They were more likely to own their homes and less likely to be renting than the average voter. They were slightly more public sector than Tory voters, less so than Labour voters. Likewise, they were more unionised than Tories, but less than Labour supporters. They were more likely to be in ‘unskilled’ and menial clerical work, as well as to be unemployed, than the voting population.

While UKIP bosses are typically active or retired businessmen, their voters consist of the less well-off and less securely affluent Tory voters: a coalition of workers and the lower middle class. This is potentially a very powerful coalition, linking as it does the discontent of popular elements with the wealth and influence of privileged layers.

Popular Conservatism

UKIP thus provides a convivial space for a reactionary milieu, linking the disparate elements of the hard Eurosceptic right. In doing so, it provides refuge for the far right, but it doesn’t have any future in becoming a fascist organisation. Its object is the transformation of parliamentary politics, above all of the Conservative Party. The prize is the Tory leadership, and thus effectively the impregnation of the dominant party and the state apparatus with the social goals of the middle-class right. They are not without allies in this objective within the Tory party.

Lord Tebbit, the last of the Thatcherite hard men, has been willing to call for Conservative voters to back anti-EU candidates outside the party. He has defended UKIP and repudiated Ken Clarke’s ‘fruitcakes’ jibe. This displays a ruthlessness and single-mindedness that would be difficult to imagine from an equivalent Labour figure. Tebbit is clearly pursuing a long game: even if it costs the Tories electorally, he wagers, it will benefit them by dragging the mainstream to the right. In addition, if this occurs in the form of an ‘insurgency’, it could renew the base of ‘popular’ Conservatism, thus at least temporarily retarding or reversing the Tories’ secular decline.

One side effect of UKIP’s strategy, however, is likely to be the replenishment of the far right’s energies. To the extent that it is successful, it gives the street-fighting and openly Nazi groups a shot in the arm, normalises their campaigning themes, and gives their cadres nourishing contact with other right-wing activists. This is not UKIP’s problem – but it is ours.

Stopping the rightist wedge

UKIP poses two distinct challenges for the left. The first is to counter the gravitational pull to the right exerted by UKIP. A purely negative attack will not work in this respect. Projects such as Left Unity, and anti-austerity initiatives like the People’s Assembly, are a good step forward – and would be the stronger with an anti-capitalist edge. By belatedly beginning the work of constructing a popular solution to the capitalist crisis – nationalising banks and utilities, taxing the rich, protecting jobs and creating green employment – such campaigns can begin to set the tempo in the way the right presently does. This is an area in which UKIP can become quite vulnerable, as it will use its presence in local authorities to press for cuts – which aren’t universally popular with its base.

Significant sections of voters are not running away from the stigma of the far right any more

I assume this is what people mean when they call for a ‘UKIP of the left’. The other potential meaning is that we need a campaign that focuses on Euroscepticism but links it to left-wing policies. This is unlikely to be effective. Left-wing voters are often hostile to the EU, and justifiably so, but they don’t obsess about it in the same way that UKIP voters do. It is a part of their perspective, but it doesn’t dominate their perspective. Indeed, by foregrounding the EU above all else, we would simply avoid the fact that those presently implementing austerity in the UK are based in London, not Brussels.

The second challenge is to disrupt the mainstreaming of the ideas and forces of the far right, and prevent a stable new fascist formation from emerging out of this recuperative process. This is more difficult, because it seems to require facing up to a wider problem and responding in a way that we have no experience of doing. Generally speaking, anti-racist campaigns in the UK have been channelled through the concentrating prism of anti-fascism. Since fascism represents the most obnoxious face of racism, it is the weakest link in racist ideology: target the far right and you simultaneously de-legitimise racism.

However, this misses something crucial. Significant sections of voters, not to mention sections of the political establishment, are not running away from the stigma of the far right any more. On the contrary, thanks to the persistent ideological work of media and successive administrations, the tendency is to see the far right’s behaviour as merely the explicable, if slightly overwrought, reaction to extreme provocation by Muslims and immigrants. This is the climate in which UKIP and its allies thrive. As a result, there is an urgent need to shift gears toward a wider cultural and political offensive against racism as such.

That is how we can stop the rightist wedge.

UKIP in Europe

There is perhaps an irony that Nigel Farage is co‑chair of the Europe for Freedom and Democracy group in that institution he so hates, the European parliament. With 10 MEPs, UKIP is the largest party in the group, just ahead of Italy’s hard-right regionalist Northern League. They are joined by the likes of United Poland, a Catholic-nationalist party; the True Finns, who only have one MEP but 20 per cent of members of Finland’s national parliament; and Lithuania’s scary-sounding Order and Justice party.

Although they are all socially conservative anti-immigrant Eurosceptics, the group as a whole is by no means entirely opposed to the EU in the way that UKIP is. Some of the parties are also more centrist and populist on economic issues than UKIP’s hardline Thatcherism. The group doesn’t include those parties, such as France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik, that fit in the fascist category with the BNP, though taken together with such organisations, it is clear that a far-right populism has established itself in the whole European Union. ‘How do you solve a problem like UKIP?’ is a question to be asked right across the continent.

James O’Nions

The local view

UKIP’s campaign in the South Shields by-election was all about immigration, says Unison area organiser Gemma Taylor

‘UKIP put a lot of time and money into the South Shields by-election [where its candidate came second with 24 per cent of the vote in May]. They had a shop in King Street, the local shopping centre. A lot of people were going in to have a look. At election time UKIP use big billboards and trailers with posters of their candidates on. They are the main opposition on the local council after some independents crossed the floor to join them without a democratic mandate. [There are now 49 Labour councillors, three UKIP and one independent.]

Labour and the trade unions are putting in lots of work to win those seats back. We’ll do what we did to the BNP, with Hope Not Hate, in the run-up to the next election. We’re getting more of our local trade unionists coming forward as Labour candidates to put forward our alternative to austerity.

I think a lot of people are voting for UKIP because of the myths on immigration. There were people in the by-election who’d previously said that they were Labour supporters who did change over to UKIP. A lot of that was because of what people had seen in the national media – they were always in the media, that was the problem.

When UKIP knock on the doors they don’t tell people that they want more cuts – they say immigrants have your job and they get welfare when they want. Their materials are all focused on immigration. The European elections next year are a big concern as we know UKIP are a growing force, but we will campaign by countering the myths of UKIP.

I’m the coordinator for South Tyneside Public Services Alliance. We campaign around protecting public services, eg. the NHS, libraries … We do a lot of work around promoting the Robin Hood Tax and tackling tax avoidance. Youth unemployment is huge in South Tyneside. We need to bust the myths on immigration and get the message out that UKIP would cut more than even the Tories.’

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