Zombie Thatcherism

Submitted by AWL on 13 May, 2014 - 6:12

UKIP could top the poll in the the European parliamentary election on 22 May, a vertiginous rise that has been analysed in recently published Revolt on the Right by Nottingham University academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin.

The book raises two issues worth further discussion on the left: can UKIP be considered fascist; and are UKIP attracting working class voters away from Labour?

Ford and Goodwin rightly conclude that UKIP are different to the overtly fascist BNP.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage was recently mobbed by demonstrators in Scotland chanting “fascist scum off our streets”‘ Similarly, the SWP-dominated Unite Against Fascism has produced a leaflet for the European Elections telling voters “Don’t be used by UKIP” informing voters that UKIP has right wing policies, is against gay marriage, and that UKIP blames immigrants for economic problems created by “the bankers and their rich City friends”. The implication, as with UAF’s previous campaigns against the BNP, is that voters choose anyone else.

This recycling of the Communist Party’s popular front policies of the 1930s might make some sense against fascism in a vacuous liberal way, it makes none against UKIP. The defining feature of fascism as a political movement is that it seeks to create a mass base through which to take and consolidate power; to first control the street and then use the party as the basis of a new state that forcibly wins the political control by smashing its opponents. It has been said that every fascist leader has both a suit and a paramilitary uniform in their wardrobe. Nigel Farage only has a suit.

UKIP’s racism and homophobia are worth demonstrating against but are different in kind to fascism. Faced with a fascist threat the left have to oppose it ideologically and physically. “Fascist scum off our streets” is a call for community and working class self-defence. Our opposition to UKIP is purely ideological.

Ford and Goodwin’s book explains that unlike the BNP’s neo-Nazi racial nationalism, UKIP blend more common-or-garden anti-immigrant racism, civic nationalism with social conservatism, together with a fair dose of neo-liberal economic policy. In this they have much in common with the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Indeed the roots of UKIP are in the mainstream right of British politics — the Bruges Group which was formed in response to Thatcher’s anti-federalist speech of 1988. Although the Bruges Group always attempted to present itself as a broad church it was overwhelmingly Conservative. Out of it came those, including UKIP, who wished to stand candidates on an anti-European ticket against the Conservatives.

From its start, there had been a faction in UKIP (now dominant and grouped around Farage) who believed that the party could develop as a broad based electorally successful party, rather than just pushing the Conservatives to a more anti-European position.

The Farage party-in-its-own-right tendency has become dominant, forcing UKIP to broaden its appeal beyond the single issue of leaving the EU to a wider slate of policies. UKIP has ceased to be a parochial oddity, a shadow of the anti-European British Conservative politics, and part of a broader rise in the radical populist right in Europe.

However there is little analysis in Ford and Goodwin’s book of the European radical right. Although there is no one size fits all analysis of these populist right parties, they all are developing in a globalised context where neo-liberal states are willing to let international market forces leave some people’s existence and identity in a precarious position.

Ford and Goodwin note in passing that compared to many other parts of Western Europe, the radical right was late to arrive in Britain, but they do not explain why. The answer lies in how right wing and somewhat populist Conservative governments under Thatcher filled this space. After 1987 the defining policy of this current was Euroscepticism. Even as the space to the right of the Conservative Party opened up after John Major became prime minister in 1990, it was filled by the insurgency against him within the Conservative Party.

That insurgency was victorious in its leadership between William Hague in 1997, Ian Duncan Smith in 2001 and ended with the ghost of governments past in the form of Michael Howard to 2005. Only in David Cameron’s period in opposition from the end of 2005 to the 2010 election did the Conservative Party have a more centrist face. Even as this centrism declined after the 2010 election, it has done so in a way that has allowed room for the radical right; the government has maintained support for at least some symbolic socially liberal policies, particularly gay marriage.

Who are UKIP’s voters? Ford and Goodwin summarise this base thus:

UKIP’s revolt is a working class phenomenon. Its support is concentrated among older, blue-collar workers, with little education and few skills: a group who have been “left behind” by the economic and social transformation of Britain in recent decades, and pushed to the margin as the main parties have converged on the centre ground. UKIP is not a second home for disgruntled Tories in the shires, they are the first home for angry and disaffected working-class Britons of all political backgrounds, who have lost faith in a political system that ceased to represent them long ago.

There are two problems with this “left behind”analysis. Ford and Goodwin over-estimate class as the defining characteristic of UKIP voters. And the above quote has a subtle but important shift in categories: Ford and Goodwin state UKIP’s voters are not Tories but working class. There is a fundamental confusion with the distinction between working class and middle class voters on one hand, and Conservative and Labour voters on the other. Not all working-class people voted Labour in the past, if they had Labour would have won every election at least since 1918.

Ford and Goodwin recognise that UKIP’s initial breakthrough in the 2004 European election was not a working-class one. Class aside, every indication was that these were disaffected Conservative voters. And there is little evidence that UKIP has appealed to any identifiable layer of working class Labour voters. Looking at the by-elections since the 2010 elections (largely in Labour held seats) there have, in the vast majority of cases, been large swings to Labour. Ignoring Scottish seats (where UKIP is not a factor) Labour have been in receipt of a substantial swing in votes (averaging over ten percentage points), UKIP have sometimes cut deep into the Conservatives’ core votes and nearly annihilating the LibDems but with an average swing of maybe 8 percentage points. Only in a few cases are there signs that they are blocking voters returning to Labour who abstained or voted Conservative or Lib Dem in 2010.

There are two by-elections that suggest that UKIP could impact on Labour.

In Rotherham (Denis MacShane’s seat) Labour held the seat but with a swing of only 2% (although Respect picked up 6% of the vote). More ominously in South Shields (vacated by David Miliband), Labour’s vote declined a little, although here Labour’s vote was still above 50% of the total. In similar seats (Barnsley, Middlesbrough) Labour have held the seats with large swings.

There are areas — particularly northern towns with white and Asian populations living “parallel lives” and suburban east London — where the BNP had built itself a younger pre-dominantly working-class base and it seems that since the BNP’s implosion after the 2010 election UKIP have been able to pick up much of that vote. Whether they can make any further in-roads in that direction remains to be seen. The idea that UKIP have the potential for winning votes from Labour lacks any evidential basis.

To understand what is happening it is necessary to look at Ford and Goodwin’s statistics critically. Without getting too far into the technicalities, a group of UKIP voters compared to a group of voters overall will contain around twice as many voters over the age of 55, around 50% more who left school at the age of 16 or earlier, about 40% more men and 25% more manual workers. (The BNP’s vote, in comparison, was younger and more working class). This is not a picture of a predominantly manual working class vote, but an older and uneducated vote. Most UKIP voters are not manual workers and the massive majority did not previously vote Labour.

It is clear that UKIP exists in an age where strong class identity has ceased to be the underpinning of voting behaviour, so the “left behind” voter explanation fails to convince. It does not explain why UKIP’s voters are older. I would suggest an untested hypothesis that, nonetheless, fits the available evidence.

The older group came of age in the period of British post-war decline. Furthermore, this group mainly lived outside of cosmopolitan metropoles, in northern towns, the provinces, or the margins of big cities but not in them. They did not go to university or college. They started work in dull jobs in traditional workplaces and did not progress beyond those (these were not necessarily manual work, but also retail, financial services, clerical and lower managerial).

Mass immigration and the permissive age of the 1960s and 1970s was something of a distant and unsettling spectacle that they saw as part of Britain’s (perhaps England’s) existential decline. The strikes, women’s movement, demonstrations and racial diversity of the 1970s were something experienced at both a physical and cultural distance. It added to their sense that cultural change in Britain was deeply implicated in economic decline.

In the mid-1970s to the early 1980s this group became part of the bedrock support for a more radical, new right, agenda of Thatcher’s Conservative Party. If the members of this group hadn’t voted Conservative to this point, they did now. They were the readers of the Sun, Daily Express, and Daily Mail who believed in the myth of the return to Victorian values. After Major’s government, this group were increasingly cut adrift, and although some may well have voted for Blair’s New Labour vision, the social liberalism of the Labour governments after 1997 alienated them. After 2005, this was reflected by the leadership of Cameron’s Conservative Party, striving to detoxify its brand and not be the nasty party but one comprised of a cosmopolitan elite who are comfortable with gay marriage, mixing with black and Asian people and eating hummus on a regular basis.

UKIP’s voting base is clearly wider than this thumbnail sketch. Its anti-immigrant racism has the potential to widen its electoral base and for it to become (as Ford and Goodwin argue) a more genuinely right wing popularist party. But there are tensions within UKIP and its electoral support. It is as if history has vomited up half digested chunks of late Thatcher period Conservatism replete with free market bile. It smells of decay, of the past.

Thus, the way to counter UKIP is not to denounce it as fascist. It is necessary to address the issues that UKIP address.

New immigrant workers should not undercut the existing workers, they should be unionised and the minimum wage should be raised to a real living wage and enforced.

The labour movement should demand integrated public housing, increased capacity in the NHS and education system.

Such demands in themselves will not immediately undercut much of UKIP’s supporters, most of these people have given up long ago on solidarity and fully accept individualistic competition. But it will create an environment where this brand of zombie-Thatcherism cannot reproduce.

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