The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) has seen support surge, most recently in the 28 February Eastleigh by-election where it won 11,571 votes — 27.8%, an increase of 24%, and enough to beat the Tories into third place.
Last year, in the Croydon North by-election, Ukip polled 1,400 votes, an increase of 4%. In Rotherham, it won 4,648 votes (21.67%), coming second. In Middlesbrough, it also finished second with 1,990 votes (11.8%).
In a recent YouGov poll the party showed 12% overall support — equal third with the Liberal Democrats.
The trends suggest that Ukip stands a good chance of gaining the most votes of any party at next year’s European Parliament elections.
A great deal of debate has taken place in the mainstream press about whether Ukip’s recent electoral gains were just “protest votes”, rather than indicators of the party consolidating a longer-term, loyal base. If the vote was an expression of “protest”, the questions are: who was doing the protesting, what were they protesting about, and in the name of what alternative?
A study into Ukip’s vote at the 2009 European elections, where they came second to Labour and won 16.1% of the vote, argued that Ukip’s “core supporters” are “a poorer, more working-class, and more deeply discontented group who closely resemble supporters of the BNP and European radical right parties.”
The BNP would sometimes pitch “to the left”; leader Nick Griffin claimed in 2002 that his party was “the only socialist party in Britain”, and the BNP’s local work often has an explicitly “working-class” edge and includes opposition to cuts to local services. Ukip’s pitch is different.
Where the BNP might demagogically and disingenuously attack Labour for abandoning white workers, Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage focuses on attacking David Cameron for not being conservative enough. The Tories failed in Eastleigh, Farage said, because “traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and ask themselves: is he a Conservative? And they conclude, no, he is not. He is talking about gay marriage, wind turbines, unlimited immigration from India, he wants Turkey to join the EU.” The Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens described Ukip as “the Thatcherite Tory Party in exile”. Ukip wants compulsory “workfare” schemes for anyone on benefits, greater privatisation in education, and a part-privatised “national health insurance” model to replace the NHS.
But despite its right-wing pitch, figures in the Independent show that more than 40% of Ukip supporters oppose the Tories’ cap on tax credits and benefits, 43% want increased spending on public services, and more Ukip supporters than Lib Dem supporters believe that “the government is cutting too deeply”. There is a potentially unstable contradiction between Ukip’s ultra-Tory policies and the instincts of some of its working-class supporters.
It would be patronising and complacent, though, to believe that working-class people who vote Ukip do so simply to express a vague “protest” without any real understanding of or belief in what the party stands for. It is dangerous to imagine that if some left-wing electoral vehicle can replicate Ukip’s populist pitch (but from the left), we can repeat their success.
The Socialist Party-led Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) stood in the Rotherham, Middlesbrough, and Eastleigh by-elections on as “populist” a pitch as one could wish for — a lowest-common-denominator anti-cuts appeal. TUSC came out of the “No2EU” coalition, an attempt to tap into anti-EU and anti-migrant sentiment “from the left”. TUSC polled 620 votes in total across the three by-elections, less than half of Ukip’s lowest single score. Unfortunately Ukip’s vote represents a layer of anti-migrant, anti-Europe feeling amongst working-class people — which the left needs to relate to with a serious long-term political campaign based on socialist ideas and emphasising working-class unity.
Peter Woodhouse, a Ukip-voting train driver and former Labour supporter interviewed in the Guardian, said: “One of the reasons I voted for Ukip is immigration. I’m worried about the dropping of the barrier in January. I fully expect 2-4 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come over. What’s it going to be like? We’re a small island.” Sarah Holt, a shopworker, said: “They have talked to me about their policies and I agree with a lot of what they have told me. There’s going to be more and more foreigners coming in and taking everything from us. It’s diabolical.”
Although senior Tories like Kenneth Clarke have warned against a rightwards lurch in response to Ukip’s success, a cabinet committee met on 5 March to examine “wide-ranging plans” to restrict Bulgarian and Romanian immigration to Britain without breaching EU law.
But, critically, where is the Labour Party, the wider labour movement, and the left? Eastleigh was a dismal showing for Labour, finishing fourth in a by-election while in opposition for the first time in nearly 15 years.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper was set to unveil a new immigration policy on Thursday 7 March, and while it is focusing on “crackdowns” on employers who exploit migrants, previous “crackdowns” have been used as cover to deport migrant workers rather than level up their conditions.
The far-left is politically hamstrung on the issue, having been desperately attempting to give a progressive gloss to anti-EU sentiment for years. The “No2EU” coalition even attacked “the so-called ‘free movement of labour’”, and “the social dumping of migrant labour”. A speech by the then-RMT President Alex Gordon to a 2011 conference of the “People’s Movement” (an Irish anti-EU coalition) argued for restrictions on immigration on the basis that continued “mass migration” would “feed the poison of racism and fascism”.
The left needs more than a change of approach or tactics; it needs a change of politics. Attempting to convince Ukip-supporting workers that their anti-migrant and anti-EU feeling would be better and more progressively expressed by voting for some left-social-democratic electoral formation (Respect, No2EU, TUSC, next?) than for Ukip is a dead-end.
We need to convince workers of an alternative set of ideas<, that the enemy is not “Europe” but capitalist austerity, and that the answer to fears about increased migration putting a strain on jobs, wages, and services is not to restrict migration but to organise all workers — British-born and migrant — to fight for the levelling up of conditions to provide living wages, decent jobs, housing, and public services for all. The labour movement needs an emergency plan that can unite workers across Europe to fight for working-class policies against the policies of austerity.
Winning working-class people to that fight is the only way to stop and reverse the rise of Ukip.
• Sign this statement — “Equal rights for migrant workers!”