Sunday, 22 July 2018

Should Labour Worry about UKIP?

Told you Theresa May's incoherent Brexit position would start peeling away constituents of the Tories' present electoral coalition, and so Labour has opened leads varying around the five and six per cents while UKIP have gone from the doldrums to the seven per cent mark, threatening the LibDems their recently re-won position as the UK's (long distance) third party. An occasion to celebrate then?

According to Stephen Bush, one of the few mainstream writers worth reading, there are people in the upper echelons of Labour who see a UKIP comeback as a good thing. Just look at the polls. For Stephen this is a complacent mistake because the kippers are now further to the right than under the Walter Mitty leadership of Paul Nuttall. He notes also that Labour are going to be lumbered with Brexit should it win the next general election, which might mean frustrating Leave hopes further, and lastly the view - oft attributed to the team around Ed Miliband back in the day - of leaving UKIP to its own devices met its Waterloo at the 2015 general election, where it apparently did as much damage to Labour as the Tories. Sensible caveats to be sure, and ones worth thinking about in more depth.

That UKIP have taken a lurch to the right is undeniable. Their current leader Gerard Batten, a 13-year veteran of the Brussels gravy train, has likened the EU to the Nazis' plans for occupied Europe, attended and spoke at the free "Tommy" rally in London earlier this month, and has made comments on Islam that, to all intents and purposes, are no different to the sort of remarks Nick Griffin made in the BNP's heyday. A revival of UKIP, coming at a time when YouGov for the Sunday Times suggests up to a quarter of the electorate are prepared to give a hypothetical anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party a punt is sobering. A rebooted UKIP would give more power to the elbow of this most disgusting of politics, and the British political scene become an even deeper, stinking cesspit of racism, conspiracy mongering and abject idiocy.

Yet, is this really news? According to research done last year, about a quarter of people admitted to being racially prejudiced in some way (for what it's worth, a fifth of remain voters and a third of leave voters so categorised themselves). At its peak UKIP was regularly reaching the low 20s in opinion polling, and in 2014 it got 26.6% of the European poll. We know there is a large minority constituency who, at least, are prepared to lend them protest votes. However, while this appears threatening the same sort of declinism afflicting the Tories applies here too. Middle-aged to elderly white male retirees are their core constituency, and this cohort formed in the golden years of the post-war boom, with its unreconstructed chauvinism, post-imperial nostalgia, and a working life totally out-of-step with employment today means their life experiences, which informed UKIP's support are slowly but steadily vanishing from the scene. And though we should always be vigilant and challenge it wherever it shows its face, not least because of the fear and violence their racism encourages, it is very likely we have seen the high tide of this sort of politics.

Why? We have to think about the old politics, which is sometimes difficult to remember now the polarising politics that emerged as the outcome of the 2017 general election is the new normal. Remember, between 2009 and 2015, and particularly over the course of 2013, UKIP transformed itself into a catch-all protest party. A good chunk of Tory voters (and members) didn't like Dave's socially liberal Toryism, and the none-of-the-aboves could not lend the Liberal Democrats their votes because, well, they had become one of the aboves. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband's Labour was an opposition frightened of its own shadow. When Ed was strong, like taking on the Murdoch press and raising inequalities-related issues, he was always held back by the continuity-Blairists for whom any mention of social justice, let alone socialism, were perceived as electoral bromides. Politics people of all parties were inured to hearing "you're all the same" on the doorstep, and that's because all the main parties appeared to be the same from a distance. London-centric soundbitey talkers with policy obsessions removed from the concerns of everyday folk, a competition that looked and sounded like a contest between rival sets of personnel managers, is it any wonder people turned off from politics completely, or registered an anti-establishment protest with something that appeared to break the mould? That time, however, is now past. In England and Wales Labour is an insurgent party, and one that was able to win back a portion of the UKIP vote on the basis of bringing socialism back to the mainstream - and accepting the referendum result. The LibDems are slowly rebuilding their protest party cache as well, but are only really making headway in terms of council by-elections. And with the centrist establishment marginalised in Labour, and consumed with internal warfare in the Tories, that object, the liberal elite, is no longer a political factor in the same way it once was, and that hampers UKIP's crossover appeal.

There are two other difficulties as well. UKIP was inseparable from Nigel Farage, and thanks to his cosy gig on LBC interviewing the likes of Steve Bannon, he is yet to return to the political fray - despite loud hints indicating he may do so. You don't have to like Farage to understand why some find him appealing, and no doubt UKIP will, under present circumstances, be more viable should he assume leadership. The problem is while building a profile as a truth-teller, as someone who will say the unsayble, he never ventured into outright, explicit racism. He was always sure to stay just about within the envelope of official anti-racism. Room here for dog whistles, yes, but not endorsing the EDL or associating with the Yaxley-Lennonites. How comfortable Farage would be leading this shower, knowing it could harm his future bankability as a pundit, has to be giving him pause for thought. After all, he too knows the costs of frontline politics, how exhausting it is, and how the ultimate prize - a seat at Westminster - will likely still elude him. In the meantime, what people say in a poll and what they're prepared to do is quite another. Publicly singing the praises of the new, far right leaning UKIP is not without social cost and it can blunt their appeal, something Farage well understood. A few disorderly EDL/Free Tommy mobilisations might also do for UKIP if there is a perception of a relationship between the two established in the popular imagination, something Batten has done nothing to curtail. This can put off the softer racist/chauvinist vote, and also put them at arms' length to Labour voters too.

But what if there is another UKIP tide due to come in? If UKIP's better days are in front of it and not behind, how might they come about? As Stephen points out, any Labour government having to deal with the Brexit mess - say Labour gets in in 2022 - will be tarred with the same failing brush swishing about the Tories. As already noted, the Brexit dynamic plays out differently among Labour's voter coalition as opposed to the Tories. Whereas it's an ideological glue sticking the latter together, for our party's support it is not the same sort of deal breaker, precisely because Labour has accepted the referendum result. Labour leavers have come home in large numbers from their flirtations with UKIP, and everyone is expecting a Corbyn government to go hard on changing the rules of the rigged game. Here, it's not so much capitulations to the EU that is the worry (in fact, as I've previously speculated, they might prove to be an occasion for rallying support), but rather the implementation of policies that attack the party's own base. This is why Labour's democratisation is so important, so we have a relationship where its constituency dictate terms to it rather than it dictating terms to us. We've seen what's happened with SYRIZA in Greece, hemmed in and hamstrung by the EU, and so the party has suffered. And we know how centre left parties have caved in across Western Europe. This is the danger, the ever-present danger that menaces Labour. Could some of this disaffection lock in behind UKIP or some other hard right force? Possibly, but we have to be prepared for what might happen to the Tories and whether they reinvent themselves on a similar, right-populist ground, precipitating a split with the centre right, or on more centrist terms, precipitating a split with the swivel-eyed brigade.

Predicting politics is a tricky business, especially as it's difficult to read the balance of forces down the road. Provided Labour can hold most of its coalition together, Tory splintering continues apace and Brexit well and truly stuffs them, the probability of UKIP doing well more or less lies outside of its gift. Labour should not be afraid of talking the language of class. It should also think about the kinds of circumstances that point voters toward UKIP (and, for that matter, all our opponents and enemies), and work toward policies that speak to their anxieties without pandering to prejudice. Overcoming UKIP or some kind of successor organisation will always be a challenge, but it never has to be an existential threat - unless we let it become one.

5 comments:

Jim Denham said...

Once again, we're going to have to agree to disagree about both the wisdom and the principles that lie behind Labour's "acceptance of the referendum result." What concerns me with regard to your latest piece, Phil, is your resurrection of the old myth (widely peddled by "Lexit" people) that EU membership is incompatible with Labour's present policies and Corbyn's election manifesto. This simply isn't true: As a cursory glance at state-owned railways and industries all over Europe will confirm, state ownership is not a problem. Most European countries have state-owned railways. The UK is the exception, not the rule. It is true that EU law requires that infrastructure (rails, stations, etc.) be separate from the train services using them, but both can be publicly-owned or controlled, as they are in many EU countries. There is nothing to prevent a Corbyn government taking private rail companies back into public ownership as their franchises expire.

Energy supply networks can be publicly-owned and decentralised. That is the situation in many EU countries. It is also the case for water distribution. A big row erupted in Germany and Austria a few years ago when the EU considered opening water distribution concessions to a public tendering process. In those countries, and probably elsewhere, water distribution is handled by municipal bodies.

There is no reason why a network of regional publicly-owned water companies could not be created or recreated in the UK.

Renationalisation of Royal Mail by the compulsory purchase of privately held shares at market prices is a matter for the British Government. In many EU countries the state is the majority shareholder in the Royal Mail’s counterpart.

There is nothing in the Labour manifesto which breaches EU state aid law. Individual measures would have to be approved. Rescue aid for companies in difficulty would require a credible restructuring plan to secure approval. Perhaps the best way to understand the challenge facing a leftist Government in the EU is to look back to the early years of Fran├žois Mitterrand’s Presidency in France. Elected in 1981 on a political programme which makes Corbyn’s manifesto look palely social-democratic, the Government included Communist ministers and set about nationalising banks and large industrial companies. Social protection policies were strengthened.

Industrial policies were instituted to dynamise the French economy in key sectors. Some aspects of this were a continuation of statist Gaullism, others were more genuinely socialist in inspiration. Did Europe stop this happening? No, and when a choice had to be made between staying in the common market and going it alone, it was a French decision to choose the former.

The grounds for doing so included internationalism and geopolitical interests and also the conviction that nationalisation and state-driven industrial policies did not require protectionism to succeed. Mitterrand’s Finance Minister, Jacques Delors, went on as President of the European Commission to turn that common market into a single market with the support of Mitterrand, Kohl and Thatcher. France chose open borders and continued European integration over some form of socialist autarky in one country. But the choice remains, and would be there as well for a Corbyn government.

Boffy said...

The whole argument over state ownership is a red-herring. Firstly, socialists should be interested in workers ownership of the means of production not ownership by the capitalist state which is their primary enemy. As Kautsky argued long ago, and as UK Miners discovered in 1984-5, the capitalist state is far more powerful in being able to exploit and oppress them than any individual capitalist could ever be.

Secondly, as Marx describes in Capital III, Chapter 27, the main form of large-scale capital is the socialised capital of the joint stock company, which he describes along with co-operatives as the transitional form of property between capitalism and socialism. Shareholders exercise unwarranted control over that capital, which is capital they do not own. Rather than a costly nationalisation or renationalisation programme, a Labour government merely needs to change the Company law on Corporate governance.

Germany already has co-determination laws that enable workers to elect 50% of company boards. The EU, in the 1970's proposed its Draft 5th Company law Directive that basically extended that principle across the EU, but it was shelved as conservative parties took control of EU national governments, and thereby the Council of Ministers during the 1980's. In the 1970's, Wilson also set up the Bullock Committee, whose report proposed similar industrial democracy, but which again got shelved with the arrival of Thatcher.

John Kay 12 years ago discussed why current law on corporate governance makes no legal sense in enabling shareholders to exercise control over capital they do not own. Labour should go further than the BUllock Report et al, and simply abolish the right of shareholders to vote, or appoint Directors. It should legislate new corporate governance laws based on industrial democracy, so that workers and managers in joint stock companies, as with worker owned co-operatives appoint directors, and so on. That costs nothing. They should seek to get the support of other EU socialists to extend that principle across the EU.

Dave K said...

What happened in 2015 in terms of UKIP effects on the Tories and Labour is this.
Cameron never enthused much of the Tory base. Especially working class tory voters. Its one of the reasons they failed to get a majority in 2010. But Cameron was much more successful in getting a slice of the Middle classes who had voted Lid Dem or new Labour and wouldn't call themselves tories to support him as a personal vote or as a representative of a sort of proxy national government.
By 2012 with austerity and the socially liberal term the Tories began shedding votes to UKIP. But by the beginning of 2015 by utilising the fear of a minority government with the SNP and really quite underhand and sometimes very dodgy smearing of Ed Miliband the tories managed to scare enough voters who had been dallying with UKIP in the period 2012-2014 back to the Tory fold for the election to give them a majority.
Meanwhile Labour really only started shedding voters to UKIP outside of European elections in the Last year or so before the election. The problem is their response to that was the infamous "Control Immigration" mug and the EdStone. That managed to put off young urban voters on the one hand so they did not turn out for Labour with much enthusiasm but was never going to win over voters whose main issue was immigration because they knew there was no substance behind the claim.
Labour were much less successful at convincing working class 'Labour' voters who had dallied with UKIP to vote Labour then the tories were in convincing 'tory; voters who had strayed. Plus Milibands Labour did not enthuse enough new people to get out and vote.

George Carty said...

Another factor is that much of the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was voting not for liberalism out of principle, but just against the Tory and Labour parties. Once the Lib Dems became part of the establishment by joining a coalition government, UKIP replaced them as the default "anti-establishment" choice.

This was especially true in the old Lib Dem heartland in South West England, which switched to the Tories in 2015 and stayed switched thanks to that region's support for Leave in the referendum.

Anonymous said...

It is not a coincidence that the sudden surge in support for UKIP has followed the alt-right's announcement that they intend to "colonise" the party and take it over. This isn't UKIP enjoying a revival, this is nothing short of a total rebrand. We should be taking it seriously.

It was largely due to "meme warfare" that the enormous swell of support for Trump (confined to the internet) went pretty much unnoticed by the traditional media, and we know how that worked out.

That outcome (an alt-right demagogue in charge) is unlikely to unfold here, for a number of mundane electoral reasons. However, a neo-trumpian alt-right mob occupying the place of the "official third party" could have serious knock-on policy effects, particularly for a Tory Party that is haemorrhaging credibility down the drain.

We laughed at Trump. We're laughing on the other sides of our faces now, are we?