Ukip gains its first MP
“When Douglas Carswell defected from the Tories and called a by-election, he would have known he was in a very strong position to become the first Ukip MP. Clacton is the sort of place where Ukip do very well. It’s a predominantly white community and Ukip generally do best where there’s a very low level of immigration. I found it particularly amusing to hear constituents being interviewed saying, ‘I’m voting Ukip because the Tory MP’s never done anything for me’.
I’ve met Douglas Carswell, and he is a very engaging and interesting person. He’s a man of ideas and is not particularly anti-immigration. So what basically happened is people were so angry about immigration in Clacton, which didn’t really exist, that they voted for a candidate who doesn’t even particularly oppose immigration. In that sense the election was a truly surreal moment.
In presenting themselves as the anti-establishment party, Ukip help protect the powerful from scrutiny. They get powerless people to be angry with each other, to direct their frustration at their neighbours, immigrants, unemployed people and public sector workers rather than at those in power. It’s frustrating because this supposedly anti-establishment party they’re supporting is led by a privately educated ex-City broker, whose two MPs are privately educated ex-Tories.
One worked in the City, the other in asset management.
“People were so angry about immigration in Clacton, which didn’t really exist, that they voted for a candidate who doesn’t even particularly oppose it”
I feel frustrated about the failure of the left to offer a message of hope to working class people who are struggling at a time of austerity and who end up in the arms of Farage’s purple army. According to the opinion polls, Ukip supporters are in favour of public ownership of rail and energy. They’re more likely to support these things than the average voter. They support higher taxes for the rich, they want more workers’ rights, they’re in favour of getting rid of zero hours contracts and increasing the minimum wage, they want to build council housing. The overwhelming majority of Ukip supporters think society’s being run in the interests of the rich.
These are the sorts of things which you expect the left to articulate, and the Ukip leadership’s politics are very different indeed. They’re arch neo-liberals, they want privatisation of the NHS, they want to curtail workers’ rights, they want to slash taxes on the rich, to change the tax system in a way which would hammer the people who are voting for them. But Ukip leaders don’t exactly go on about their economic policies: the key is for them this issue of immigration and the politics of envy. Opposition to immigration is the main thing binding Ukip leaders and Ukip voters together, and in the long term it’s an unwieldy coalition. Whether that collapses before the election is a big question but you can certainly see it fragmenting already.
I think the left could learn from Ukip in the way they they communicate. It’s funny that the opinion polls show that most people think Nigel Farage went to state school, even though he was privately educated, and most think Ed Miliband went to private school even though he went to a state school. The fact that Farage U-turns all the time on all sorts of different issues is neither here nor there. He’s got a pint in his hand and he’s got this ‘everyday bloke’ patter which most politicians struggle with.
Ukip have a problem because the media regard the prospect of Ed Miliband as prime minister as unacceptable. As a consequence they will try to eliminate anything that stands in the way of David Cameron. Ukip have been helped to where they are by the media, but as we run up to the election the media are going say, ‘You’ve had your fun… We’re going to have to say some rather unpleasant things about you now…’
However, they do have a strong resilience because people are so angry about politicians and politics and they want to express that anger. Ukip are currently the ‘none of the above’ box on people’s ballot papers. I think that helps them. But I hope they are crushed and that the left finally gets its act together and starts offering a vision of hope for people to rally around instead of basically being complicit in driving voters into the arms of populist right-wing demagogues. The left have to take responsibility for Ukip.
‘The Establishment’ is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin
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