The rise of the talk about ‘the irresistable rise’ of UK*P
Much has been said about the irresistable rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UK*P as I shall call them) – indeed, far too much. “How has UK*P managed to become the third force in British politics, causing extreme discomfort for the others?” asks Owen Jones in Le Monde Diplomatique, especially when “research suggests that even 75% of UK*P voters do not include the EU among their top three political issues.”
Jones’s answer, that “UK*P prospered because of the anti-immigration backlash, widespread alienation with the political elite, and the failure of the left to provide a coherent alternative that resonates with the broader population”, does not in my opinion adequately address the issue. Much as all this is true and his article full of excellent research and analysis, there are also darker forces at work.
Compare UK*P with the poor old Green Party. The best news the Greens have managed to make recently is that they have NOT been invited on the leadership debates, despite polling better than the Lib Dems and holding the same number of seats in parliament as UK*P, who of course have received the invite. A glance at their respective manifestos would not suggest that UK*P should be the more popular party. The latter’s promises of withdrawing from the EU, restricting immigration, scrapping inheritance tax, reducing foreign aid, and imposing forced labour for benefit claimants stands in opposition to the Green’s policies for a wealth tax, living wage, rent controls, increased social housing, a ‘more pragmatic approach’ to drug prohibition, renationalised railways and a public NHS. Is it that the majority of the British population prefer racism and protecting the rich to social liberalism and reduced inequality or is there something else going on here?
Who remembers that after Britain’s first televised leadership debate, Peter Mandelson boasted that the Labour party-line had been to publically applaud Nick Clegg during the debate and loudly declare him the winner in front of the journalists afterwards? In 2010, Labour were dead in the water. Like all parties who have been in power too long, they were racked by scandal and deeply unpopular – Tony Blair’s name had become such a dirty word he had to step down as unelectable, Gordon Brown was tainted by association with the elitist, spin-doctored ‘New Labour’ project and the newspapers ‘wot won it’ were fast deserting the sinking ship, throwing everything they could at the once ‘prudent’ now weak, depressed, economically reckless, too-long-childless, prevaricating leader with his clunking fist, ‘bigot-gate’ and glass eye. Labour’s best chance of winning the election was to do everything they could to boost the Lib Dem’s standing in the polls. And they fed the media the news stories.
Politicians are now in a predicament. Public cynicism is at all-time high, party membership at an all-time low. Politicians are increasingly unable – or uninterested – to challenge the neo-liberal consensus in a world where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, stuff gets more expensive and everyone works longer. There is a looming space to the left of the mainstream and as Jones points out even amongst nationalists there is little appetite for austerity-economics: “Nearly 80% of UK*P voters support the renationalisation of the energy industry. Some 75% want to take the railway industry back into public ownership; 66% are committed to a substantial increase in the minimum wage. The majority want to ban zero-hour contracts and half support imposing state controls on private rents”.
In a recent article in London Review of Books, James Meek tries something that most journalists don’t bother with and leaves London to visit Thanet, currently a Conservative seat and the constituency in which N*gel Far*ge will be standing in 2015. Meek attends a secondary school Question Time-style debate at which all next year’s local candidates are on the panel. The result of the vote may seem surprising: a win for Labour, the Greens in second place and Far*ge last. These are the young people who, presumably, hear similar views at home to those expressed by the adults Meek meets on the streets who say things like, “British people, the natives, have become an underclass”; “it seems like they’re getting more rights than we have”; “they’re everywhere, the Polish”; “they sit outside their steps drinking, spit bird seeds out, just a drain on our resources”; or “when I was younger, you would rarely see a black person, and now it’s ‘spot the white person’”. Of course, it may well be that the sort of young person who stays after school for a political debate (even one with a ‘celebrity’ like Far*ge attending) may be different from the children of the racists quoted above, but in my experience young people do tend to take a more open-minded approach to debates than adults and, less hampered by years of chauvinism when it comes to support for political parties, are more likely to give their vote to their favourite ideas rather than their favourite party. Their parents should take note.
In 2010, UK*P had around 15,500 members and no MPs. The Green Party had 12,800 members and Caroline Lucas as a MP for Brighton and Hove. Yet, the massively disproportionate discussion of UK*P in the media gave the party a great boost and pushed the debate on immigration even further to the right. A year later, UKIP’s membership had risen by nearly two thousand while figures for the Green Party remained pretty much the same. The trend has continued. (Greens steadily gaining support and now with 20,000 members, UKIP surging to 40,000. See gov stats). This is no coincidence. Friend and fellow poet Richard Purnell has recently pointed out on his blog the hugely more sympathetic coverage UK*P get on the BBC. There is no doubt in my mind that the spin doctors of the ‘rival’ parties actively encourage it. Whether through ‘we are not worried about the rise of UK*P’ statements or through the ‘we must address the threat of UK*P’ soundbites, the phrases ‘the rise of …’ and ‘the threat of…’ have made their way into public debate.
It’s not just a case of, as Jones – and others – moan, “the failure of the left to provide a coherent alternative that resonates with the broader population”. That coherent alternative is not given time in the media. I was away for the perhaps 100,000 strong TUC march on the 18th October but I saw on Twitter the successful occupation of Parliament Square and the frighteningly large scale police operation to try and prevent it. (see indyrikki’s excellent blog post) I was excited. I listened to Labour MP John McDonnell’s speech and was quite sympathetic. I saw the programme of talks scheduled for the week from the likes of David Graeber and the New Economic Foundation and was impressed. On balance I was probably glad that Russell Brand had come down with some pizzas. Something was genuinely happening. David Cameron was pompously lecturing the Chinese government about their repression of democracy in Hong Kong and outside his own parliament building the British police were doing exactly the same. “The Dude minds. This will not stand,” I thought, “this aggression will not stand, man.” Yet, when I got back to the UK, the only mention I could find in the discarded copy of The Mirror, which I read cover-to-cover on the bus back to London was a small op ed piece laying into Brand for disturbing the people’s minds with talk of revolution without mentioning the word ‘Occupy’ at all.
The political establishment is in the business of promoting a political vision that benefits a tiny proportion of the population, a view which, allowed its natural place in a balanced national debate, would be deeply unpopular. They fear an anti-parliamentary party emerging from the ashes of 70s and 80s socialism, energised by the relatively successful freedom movements in what used to be called the ‘second world’ and legitimised by the collapse of finance and its resulting state hand-outs. Thus, through an utterly compliant media, they promote a safe alternative whose essential difference is slight, with a libidinal nationalism as a barricade against anything actually threatening. People like me can point out this obvious fact in pubs and online but we cannot compete with the reach and power of, for example, a Channel 5 TV schedule that includes such shows as ’Angry Britain’, ‘Blackmarket Britain’, ‘Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole’, ‘Britain’s Crime Capitals’, ‘Dangerous Dog Owners’, ‘Football Hooligans and Proud’, ‘Gypsies on Benefits and Proud’, ‘Jim Davidson: At Least I’m not Boring’, ‘Nightmare Neighbour Next door’, and ‘On Benefits and Proud’. The supposedly left-wing BBC has yet to counter with ‘Bankers on Bonuses’ or ‘Destroying the Environment and Proud’.
Nationalism has an emotional appeal that the multi-national TTIP economics of our political leaders and their friends in finance cannot match. Outside of London there is a lack of jobs and a severe lack of decent jobs. It is a reality that immigration prevents what Brown once called ‘wage inflation’. The appeal of (in Alex Williams’ phrase) ‘negative solidarity’ is winning votes all across Europe: ‘the neighbour’s cow must also die’ as the Hungarian expression has it. Hence we must go back to what Boris Johnson called in a recent speech to the Bloomberg Group “the sublime simplicity and wisdom” of patriotism and in order to divert from the “pointless attacks on the City of London” we must return to the supposedly obvious innate British superiority, free of annoying labour laws and irritating rights for the people.