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Home Opinion Why UKIP and the radical right matter for progressives
UKIP • Labour • Election

Why UKIP and the radical right matter for progressives

Robert Ford & Matthew Goodwin - 10 April 2014

Nigel Farage’s party has a fighting chance of becoming the first new party since the 1920s to top the poll in a nationwide election. So where did this revolt on the right come from? And what impact will they have on traditional centre-left constituencies?

Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are leading the most significant revolt against the British political establishment for a generation. Since 2010, UKIP have successfully widened their ‘hard’ Eurosceptic message to encompass strident opposition to immigration and populist attacks against established political class. The appeal of this message is highly differentiated - it resonates strongly among some social groups but falls completely flat among others. Yet where the message has worked, the political effects have been spectacular. UKIP are currently winning over more than one in ten British voters and at the European Parliament elections will win over more than one in four. Nigel Farage’s party has a fighting chance of becoming the first new party since the 1920s to top the poll in a nationwide election. So where did this revolt on the right come from? And what lessons does it hold for progressives elsewhere in Europe?

No short-term protest: Why UKIP’s revolt was a long time coming

If you looked at Britain’s political debate over recent months you might think that our political class has firm answers to the questions above. The rise of UKIP, they intone repeatedly, is simply the latest reflection of enduring divisions among Conservatives over Britain’s European Union membership; this new party is merely a second home for middle-class, single-issue, Eurosceptic Tories who live out in suburbia, complain on the golf course about the costs of the EU, and long for the days when Margaret Thatcher handbagged the Eurocrats. These disgruntled Tories are even angrier now as a result of David Cameron's leadership, a man they regard with distrust as someone who shares neither their values nor their impassioned hostility to Brussels.

The conventional wisdom that UKIP are a Conservative splinter group makes sense if you assume that they have not changed since their chaotic beginning as an anti-EU pressure group that grew out of the Tory fringe. Many progressives have also bought into this assumption, even cheering on Farage’s rise, convinced that his insurgent army is a useful tool to "split the right" and enhance the prospects of a Labour victory at the 2015 general election. But the thing about conventional wisdoms, of course, is that they are often wrong, and the thing about parties is that they learn, and they change.

As we show in our new book Revolt on the Right, UKIP’s challenge to the main parties is far more complex than many assume. The underlying forces that are driving UKIP can be traced back over decades; they are mobilising into politics longstanding social and economic divisions in Britain that have also widened since the onset of the post-2008 great recession.

This story begins with the numerical decline of several groups in British society who together we describe as the “left behind”; older, working class voters with few qualifications. These voters were once central to our political and social debate; their unions wielded real power, and no party could secure election without winning significant support from them. But fast-forward fifty years and this picture has changed radically. Blue-collar voters who were once close to a majority of the electorate now constitute a small, and rapidly declining, minority. Meanwhile the dramatic expansion of university education and professional white-collar employment has placed a new class of more secure, middle-class graduates and professionals at the centre of society and politics; the university-educated and professional middle-class.

In only five decades Britain was transformed from a society where low skilled, low educated and blue-collar voters decided elections to one where the left behind are now just spectators in a battle for the professional middle-class vote. Consider just one statistic from our book; when Harold Wilson and Labour won the 1964 general election almost five in ten British workers toiled in blue-collar jobs and four in ten belonged to a trade union. But when Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour assumed power in 1997, the proportion of voters in blue-collar jobs had slumped almost twenty points to just one in three, while the proportion of trade union members was down to barely one in five.

This broad social change really matters, not just because it radically transformed our national economy but also our politics and the values that dominate our society. It is the "left behind", whose prospects for employment and social mobility have been receding for decades, who now find that their values and priorities are being pushed to the margins of debate. These voters have particularly distinct views on UKIP’s radical right platform: on Europe, national identity, immigration and their views toward our politics. It is the left behind who are consistently the most receptive to demands to pull Britain out of the EU, to subscribe to a more restrictive conception of national identity that holds up ancestry, to feel intensely anxious about immigration, and to feel excluded by a political class they see as corrupt and alien. These divisions opened a long time ago but they have also widened since the crisis. In fact across all the years for which we have survey data, Britain’s working classes have never felt so alienated from Westminster as they do today: 40% of these voters strongly agree that they have no say in government, while only 16% of middle-class respondents feel the same way.  

This disaffection is a product of party politics as well as social change, as ‘New’ Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives converged on the centre ground, chasing more financially secure voters and having little incentive to directly engage with the left behind. In this way, underlying social changes in Britain had already created a large reservoir of potential radical right voters long before Farage and UKIP had even got off the ground. Only now –through an articulate and effective campaigner- are these conflicts being mobilised into British politics, as they have been for at least twenty years in other European democracies. In this sense, and while they are very different types of parties, the extremist and fascist nostalgic British National Party (BNP) was a trailer for UKIP’s more impressive rebellion that would follow; both have drawn votes from the same well of left behind voters, but only the most intensely disaffected were willing to tolerate the illegitimate BNP.

UKIP’s core electorate: Who are they really?

These underlying social and value divides explain why, today, UKIP’s voters share a very distinct social profile, far more so than supporters of the main parties. They are blue-collar, old, white, and male, with few qualifications and a very pessimistic economic outlook. Commentators who claim Farage is a catch-all populist who is reaching across society, or depends mainly on middle-class Tories, are way off the mark. UKIP’s is the most working class electorate since Michael Foot led the Labour Party in the early 1980s. This will not surprise those who observe the radical right across the Channel, where parties that target the same issues as UKIP have made several sweeping incursions into red territory, winning swathes of blue-collar support with nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric, and in some cases economic protectionism. UKIP is winning over the same groups, while not offering protectionist economic policies. So while the radical right in Britain was a late-starter –arriving some twenty years after other European examples- since 2010 UKIP too have drawn strength from the same underlying divisions and conflicts.

Aside from their social background, what is actually motivating these voters? Our analysis of almost 6,000 UKIP supporters (discussed in-depth in the book) reveals that three motives are key: opposition to immigration; opposition to the EU; and hostility to the domestic political class. These rebels are animated by so much more than just disdain of the Eurocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg. Nearly three-quarters of them give immigration the highest possible rating as an important issue. Almost two-thirds are strongly Eurosceptic or, asked another way, 95% disapprove of Britain’s EU membership. Nearly half are very dissatisfied with the state of British democracy, and almost one in three feel very pessimistic about their prospects, hinting at the underlying economic marginalisation which fuels their anger and disaffection.

UKIP voters are strongly Eurosceptic, that is true. But Euroscepticism alone is not enough to convince them to back UKIP. Rather, these converts are “Brussels-Plus”; their intense Euroscepticism is combined either with intense anxiety about immigration, or hostility to politicians, or most often both. This is the ‘UKIP-triple’: Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and dissatisfied with established politics. It is a strongly motivated electorate; so angry and fed up that they are willing to back an untested radical alternative that is regularly ridiculed in the media. So what began in 1993 as a single-issue, anti-EU rebellion among ex-Conservatives has now grown into a potent force, by consolidating left behind voters who use UKIP as a way of saying ‘no’ three times: no to Brussels; no to the politicians in Westminster; and no to immigration. There is no ‘Farageism’ but then there doesn’t need to be - this simple appeal alone is more than enough for voters who, for decades, have felt completely cut out of our political conversation.

Their political roots: Why Labour should take this seriously

Where are these voters coming from politically? Disillusioned Conservatives have always been a big source of votes and activists for UKIP, and that remains true today. But they are not consistently the main source of support. Before 2010, and during the eras of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, UKIP drew much of their strength from Britons who said they used to vote Labour. And while many of UKIP’s current voters say they backed the Conservatives last time, it is worth bearing in mind what else these voters say: they dislike David Cameron intensely; they feel the Conservatives have failed on immigration and the financial crisis (the main issues which matter to them); and they feel that our politics has nothing to offer them. Put in other words, it is hard to imagine that these left behind voters would be Conservative loyalists today if UKIP did not exist. Rather, they would most likely be looking for another outlet for their discontent –or giving up entirely by staying at home.

In fact, in a less politically fragmented era these left behind voters should be expected to be switching over in large numbers to the main opposition. These voters – who, in a time of austerity and insecurity, are struggling with falling incomes, dismal prospects and cuts to benefits and public services - should be a key target for Labour. But instead, many are moving behind an untested radical right insurgent over the traditional defender of redistribution and equality. Rather than turning to Ed Miliband and Labour, they are opting for a party that appears at ease with neo-liberal economics, the free market, which often defines itself as libertarian, talks of curbing welfare and, in 2010, sought to abolish inheritance tax. The Conservatives may justly worry about their failure to hold on to such voters, but Labour should worry just as much about why they cannot win the left behind back.

There is another, sobering message for Labour when we look at how Farage and UKIP have grown so quickly since 2010. This growth has not come from UKIP forging ties with new groups; their support among young people, women, minorities and middle-class professionals remains weak. Labour’s rise in the polls, in contrast, has come precisely from these groups, who were always and remain hostile to Farage. But while this is good news for progressives, among UKIP’s core electorate of left behind voters Labour’s advance since their 2009 low ebb has been anaemic. Between 2009 and 2013 Labour’s support among the over-65s, working-class, Britons with no qualifications and men increased by an average of just three percentage points. UKIP’s advance among these groups, in contrast, averages close to ten percentage points. Labour's failure to consolidate support among these left behind groups is one thing standing in the way of a more commanding poll lead, and the fact that UKIP are doing so well among these groups should be ringing loud alarm bells.

This brings us to another reason why UKIP’s revolt on the right matters for Labour; Britain’s geographically defined electoral system. The left behind tend to concentrate in particular areas, and most of these traditionally return Labour MPs. This is why it is not surprising that, since 2010, UKIP have performed strongly in parliamentary by-elections in Labour seats such as Rotherham and South Shields; it is precisely in these Labour areas where we find the largest numbers of left behind voters who form the backbone of UKIP’s support. Let us be clear: Farage and UKIP are unlikely to win seats in Labour territory in 2015, not least because the MPs often enjoy formidable majorities. But through the local, European and general elections UKIP could quite easily establish themselves as the second political force in many of these areas, positioning themselves as potential challengers to an unpopular Labour government in 2020. UKIP are no longer the amateur fruitcake brigade. Having studied the rise of Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats they know what they need to do: knock on doors; target local issues; sink local roots.

All of this hints at a wider problem facing not just Labour but British politics in general. When we track the proportion of left behind voters who say they identify with the two main parties over the past thirty years, we find a dramatic shift. In the 1980s and 1990s the working class and those with no qualifications were more or less “locked in” to our two party system; a large majority of them identified with Labour or the Conservatives, and most sided with Labour. But during the 2000s these left behind groups steadily lost faith in Labour. However, instead of attaching themselves to the Conservatives they simply stopped identifying with either of the two main parties. This raises some big questions for everyone: why do these left behind voters feel so alienated from our politics? What can be done to bring them back into the mainstream fold? And what are the long-term consequences of our established political class failing to re-engage these voters?

Writing about an earlier insurgency against the two main parties in the 1980s, by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), academics Ivor Crewe and Anthony King noted how the SDP’s performance bore a resemblance to a biography of someone who had showed early promise, but died young. It is too early to know whether UKIP will follow the same path, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. Irrespective of UKIP’s fortunes, their rise has opened a window on the left behind in Britain and tells us much about the growing identity crisis facing social democrats across Europe. These parties are now dominated by professional middle-class politicians chasing professional middle class voters, and increasingly find themselves estranged from the struggling working class voters they were long ago founded to represent.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin are the co-authors of the new book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain, which was published by Routledge in March 2014 and is available in paperback, hardback and on kindle.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Robert Ford , Matthew Goodwin , Opinion , Labour , Labour Party , UK , Britain , United Kingdom , Election , David Cameron , Ed Miliband , Tory , Tories , Conservatives , Conservative , Conservative Party , Cons , Tory Party , Coalition , Liberal Democrats , Lib Dems , Lib-Dems , Populism , UKIP , United Kingdom Independence Party , EU , European Union , Euroscepticism , Welfare , Immigration , Tax , Anti-politics , Healthcare , Social Welfare , Welfare State ,


I Deloford
11 April 2014 02:19

Don't agree! First of all we are culturally stupid. There are plenty of countries worse than us, but I stick to my claim. 90% of political activity is through the media. The media is made up of people with human weaknesses. They want to influence or even be in control. Additionally the media has few ethics and very little restraint. To make politics interesting we treat it like a soap opera. We are interested in politicians as human beings and not as politicians. We are happy for every aspect of their lives to be scrutinised; did they behave badly at university, did they smoke pot; did they have sex in some interesting situation? We make a big fuss about privacy, but do not apply the same standards to people in the public eye. The result, of course is that many able candidates steer well clear of British politics. I am not so sure that we as a country are so badly off. Many commonly used items like TV's, 'white goods' etc are much better and cheaper. Phones are better and cheaper, cars are infinitely better, as is house insulation. But there are two obvious ways we have gone wrong that have had very little proper attention. For years I have seen 'workers' being restricted to a pay rise of say 2%. "We must keep inflation under control" is loudly said. At the same time 'management' award themselves 10, 15, 20% pay rises. O level Maths and some common sense should tell us that that is the path to revolution. I am in favour of competition, market forces, capitalism, but we have to make some carefully judged rules to make it work fairly. The big company whose CEO gets an 'emolument' of seven million, will say that they have to pay that; it is the going rate. Well, yes, but it shouldn't be and there will be plenty of angry average workers who will be sure that that CEO is not worth 269 times as much as them. There is another factor. Through my life I have run the gamut of being unemployed for some time and therefore poor, to times when I had much more money than I needed. The difference between being rich and very rich is small. The difference between having enough and not enough is enormous. The other big mistake we made was to virtually give up on manufacturing. We had a fine history of making cars, lorries, aeroplanes, ships. Where are those industries now? Once lost they are hard to recover.(Finland has built the world's two largest cruise liners). There is certainly no lack of talent and skill in this country. Look at how successful we are behind the scenes in motor-racing. Our weakness over the last 50 years and before has been in leadership and long-term planning. If we concentrated on making 'things' that the world wanted rather than the easy option of service industries, and financial services, which in my view is about 50% a confidence trick, then we would be a happier and richer country. Returning to the theme of my first paragraph the article analyses the UKIP in detail, but is not interested in whether they are right or wrong. UKIP slogans have a number of headings. 1. Immigration 2. Loss of sovereignty 3. Lack of democracy in the EU 4. The EU is corrupt. Evidence is EU accounts not signed off by the Auditors 5. EU costs us millions a day 6. Ability to trade in or out of the EU 7. Restricted by too many stupid EU laws. 8. Would foreign firms and investment stay here? The pro EU case is easily argued for each of these headings, but Farage and UKIP can get away with just stating the headings above, in a rousing way, and any member of the public, having been fed the media line that all politicians are idiots, and currently the 'bureaucrats' in Brussels are even worse, are easily going to be swayed. Depressingly it is fashionable, cool, socially desirable to have strong views, but, paradoxically there is no call to be able to defend them. Someone who disagrees is seen as annoying, not interesting. The article, in my view, should have referred to the rabble-rousing aspect. Follow me for something better sounds good if you are feeling discontented. But when the man being followed has no track record, and everyone of his claims is arguably flawed surely the electorate should be encouraged to think carefully.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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