The week before the County Council elections on 2nd May, I was staying with members of my family in the Crofton Ward of Fareham, near to where I grew up. The relative success of UKIP in those elections on has drawn considerable – even sometimes exaggerated – attention. However, the conclusions drawn since then have in many cases been misplaced, and in fact say a great deal about both the commentators and how UKIP has succeeded.
Worst of all, those conclusions have probably missed the serious threat which UKIP poses to the public debate, that of increased and unreconstructed xenophobia.
The main mistake made by other politicians has of course been to dismiss UKIP as ‘fruitcakes’, ‘nutters,’ or ‘clowns’. This reflects exactly the way in which the political mainstream has trivialised and therefore under-estimated the populist appeal of UKIP – and with it, the popular and sometimes distasteful concerns of the electorate. The political elite and media commentators show how out of touch they are to dismiss UKIP so blithely – in fact, these unpalatable concerns are widespread and deeply held.
They include a Tea Party-like appeal that government spending (and therefore taxation) is mainly wasted, and Pooterish popular bugbears like the ban on smoking in pubs and the spread of windfarms. But the best examples are UKIP’s core issues of membership of the European Union and immigration.
It is irrefutable that the UK’s relationship with Europe is remains as problematic as it has been since the inception of the European movement. The ambiguity of that relationship has been reflected by successive major figures in British politics: such as Winston Churchill (who famously advocated a United States of Europe but shunned steps to set it up) and Margaret Thatcher (who passed the Single European Act and then denounced its effects at Bruges).
The parties of government have been equally split on Europe, as a reflection of their voters – as evidenced by John Smith’s Labour revolt on entry to the then Common Market, and Douglas Hurd’s admission to the Tory Party conference that Europe posed his party the same degree of threat as the Corn Laws had in an earlier age. Indeed, both parties have split on left-right lines regarding Europe: there is a fascinatingly common cause between the traditional Labour and wider left and Tories such as Redwood and Cash as well as UKIP.
The regular polling figures confirm that the roughly 50-50 split of public opinion on EU membership has remained stubbornly consistent since entry in 1973. Likewise the popular currency of stories regarding straight cucumbers and square apples, and outlawing the name of the United Kingdom tells us a great deal about public opinion. To succumb so readily to such idiocy, a large proportion of the British people must really wish to believe the worst about Europe.
It must also be acknowledged that a certain degree of UKIP’s appeal can be judged to be a condemnation of how Europe has been dealt with by our politicians. Above all, people feel that they have ‘not had a say’ – the 1974 referendum on Common Market membership is either forgotten, or dismissed as irrelevant, on the grounds that it did not seek consent for the UK to enter the successor bodies (the EEC and EU). Above all, they feel excluded from decisions which have resulted from the momentum of an ever-closer and much-expanded union.
On the subject of immigration, the picture is more clear-cut: there is no rational ambiguity, and xenophobia is the property of the right. It is true that in some historic cases, such as Keir Hardie’s opposition to Polish miners, and the 1964 Wilson government’s adoption of Tory immigration controls regarding Commonwealth citizens, Labour has shamefully conceded ground to populist prejudice. However, these examples were particular to the pre-trade union age of industrial exploitation and the uncertainty of the end of Empire respectively. Today there is no place for such concessions in the multi-cultural Britain of the early 21st century. To concede now would be to betray many decades of progress, and “British jobs for British workers” should belong firmly in the past, along with the dockers’ unions’ “we’re backing Enoch” rallies.
It is possible that it is as a result of the UK’s imperial past that each of these issues has arisen in their current forms.
In the case of the EU, it is difficult at first sight to see why a country which has grown prosperous over the centuries because of favourable global trade arrangements should have such a large constituency which opposes the replacement of empire by a voluntary sharing of sovereignty with neighbour countries. However, the essential difference is that where an empire is a command and control system, an inter-governmental union is a collaborative effort. The difference is that a disagreement with a colony can be dealt with unilaterally (even through force), while a union requires negotiation and, inevitably, compromise. It is the result of comprise that is portrayed by UKIP and other Europhobes as ‘being governed by Brussels’.
In the case of immigration, the exploitative racism inherent in the imperial model is clear, but there may also be a further insidious effect which is at play. Following large scale immigration from the Commonwealth, it was inevitable that much of the work on discrimination and prejudice has been focussed on issues of race. However, sight has to some degree been lost of the equally corrosive and destructive issue of xenophobia. Indeed, it can be argued that racism is the most obvious and indeed crudest sub-set of xenophobia.
Racial discrimination and racist language, along with race-hate aggravated violence are now rightly banned by law in the UK. However, UKIP’s use of immigration as an issue is clever in that it both avoids illegality and broadens the range of its prejudiced appeal.
There is subliminal ‘dog-whistle’ message that says that black people are not welcome in the UK, and at the same time a lawful and yet more provocative message that says that all foreigners are unwelcome in the UK, regardless of skin colour. Indeed, it is whole nationalities (Romanians, Bulgarians) who are singled out for UKIP prejudice, who thereby achieve the distinction of being equal opportunities bigots.
It is alarming to see the way in which the success of such negative and ultimately dangerous opinions have been received. This not only the dismissal of them as clowns and nutcases, but also as a protest vote. There may be some element of truth in that analysis, which would account for a proportion of vote switches from the LibDems, but it would lead to an under-estimation of the strength of anti-European and xenophobic sentiment in the UK.
So what is to be done, and what should the role of the Labour Party be?
First, a firm and positive response must be made on the issue of xenophobia, equal to those which would be automatic if the issue in question was one of xenophobia’s subsets, such as racism or anti-semitism.
The case has long been in place to argue in favour of immigration for the benefit of the economy as well as on social grounds. For example, Commonwealth immigrant communities have populated the UK’s inner cities, creating vibrant communities, filling vacancies in factories and essential public services and rebalancing the effects of an ageing population. The same cases need to be remade with regard to EU and other immigrants, who also bring their talents and industry to the UK. The contributions of the post-2004) EU expansion communities (from Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States etc.) are already known, and there is nothing to suggest that those from the latest expansion will be any different.
It is the job of the Labour Party to take a lead on confronting xenophobia, both as part of the duty of social democrats to represent workers and those at risk of marginalisation and exploitation, and as solidarity with the European and international socialist movement. In doing so, it should also work with the same other liberal and progressive forces which have co-operated in the fight against racism over decades.
Secondly, prejudice against the EU must also be tackled head-on. Public opinion remains equally divided, but this means that at any time half the population remains convinced of the case for Europe. At the same time no-one should be under the illusion that the European Union as it stands is unimprovable – far from it.
A centre-left prospectus for Europe should combine a centrist emphasis on the benefits of the single market for business and competiveness, while the left perspective should look to increase workers and civil rights, including protection against xenophobia. In both sides, Europe needs to develop resources (such as Eurobonds) and mechanisms to stimulate growth and increase employment and prosperity.
A successful Europe will be a popular Europe, and the Tory government has been forced into the Europhobic corner by UKIP’s capture of its xenophobic flank: unlike its predecessors, there is no chance that it can pretend to be putting the UK at the heart of Europe. This leaves a major opportunity for the left to advance a case for a future EU which delivers better for its peoples both in the member states and across borders. In the early 1980s, a Fabian pamphlet was seen to a catalyst in the debate which took the Labour Party away from an anti-Europe position: it was by David Martin MEP and called Common Sense for the Common Market.
. Such a contribution is needed for the present day. How about calling it A Union For the Workers?
By the way, the UKIP candidate won a famous victory over a longstanding Tory councillor in the Crofton, Fareham Ward. And I would be confident that many of its votes were not cast as a protest or for a clown or a nutter, but because the voters were convinced that their anti-European and xenophobic concerns were shared by UKIP.
That is the challenge which is being ducked by the liberal commentariat and the left – UKIP should not be dismissed but taken seriously and defeated.
Peter Russell is a retired speechwriter and researcher at Glasgow City Council. This post was originally published on his blog, Planet Pedro!
Follow Peter on Twitter at @Planet_Pedro.