How to fight UKIP

By Jo Mullins

UKIP and its politics are dominating the forthcoming European and local elections. In part this reflects the coverage of the mainstream media who have assiduously promoted its racist agenda. But it also reflects the unwillingness of the main parties to challenge UKIP politically. In politics whoever sets the agenda wins.

There can be no doubt that UKIP is a racist party. It has morphed from a ‘save the pound’ anti-EU grouping into an overtly racist party whose main focus is anti-immigration. Its own founder says it is racist. In Britain the debate on immigration is always a cover for racism and only a minority of voters deny that it is racist.

UKIP’s politics are completely backward-looking, inspired by the Powellite politics which first became prominent as Britain lost its Empire. It draws on a long history of racism in British society, including in the working class, as Enoch Powell’s own political career in Wolverhampton demonstrates. UKIP capitalises on that strain but its recent success is driven by a reactionary response to the economic crisis.

The most severe economic crisis in Britain since the 1930s requires radical solutions. This cannot be left to the allegedly self-correcting mechanisms of the capitalist economy, as the current ‘recovery’ shows. A majority of the population is becoming impoverished even as capital makes a modest advance. And this is before the next round of austerity begins after 2015.

UKIP’s answer to the economic crisis is not to address it at all but to blame all social and economic ills on immigrants, and effectively the entire Black and Asian population of Britain. It is this alternative ‘solution’ to the crisis which is UKIP’s sole reason for existence.

There are numerous efforts to highlight UKIP’s other reactionary policies, on the NHS, workers’ rights, privatisation and so on. These are misplaced. No-one who supports UKIP pretends that it is an imminent party of government that will implement any of these policies. Nigel Farage jokes that the manifesto will be written after the European elections and claims he has not read previous ones. Unlike other parties, UKIP does not have a programme that can be dissected or even one that its leader will defend. It only has one policy, which is whipping up racism.

It is this racist agenda that needs to be confronted head on. Instead, there are widespread claims that UKIP’s rise presents a threat to all major parties and that this means they need to adapt to its racism. This is wrong on both counts.

Angry White Men

Recent polling from YouGov is remarkably consistent with the earlier evidence from the Ashcroft polling. In both cases very large polling samples show that UKIP is drawing four times as many voters from the Tories as it does from Labour. Even for the Tories, consistently apeing UKIP and a relentless official campaign to demonise Muslims in particular has been unable to lift their poll ratings above the low 30 per cent level.

For Labour, adapting to the UKIP agenda is even more counter-productive. The rise in its support since 2010 is overwhelmingly driven by defectors from the LibDems. They are not at all attracted even by the Tories long-standing reactionary policies, let alone UKIP’s overt racism. They tend to be liberal on social questions, including on immigration. It is frequently overlooked that in 2010 Nick Clegg repeatedly defended then LibDem policy of an amnesty for long-standing illegal immigrants. The LibDems gained 26 per cent in the 2010 general election and struggle now to get half of that in current polling. Labour can build a winning coalition by allying its core 2010 vote to these liberal LibDem defectors.

Building this winning Labour coalition would require both radical policies to reverse austerity and raise living standards through a genuine recovery as well as confronting the racist agenda of UKIP on immigrations and racism. Going down the Phil Woolas road and apeing UKIP is morally and politically disastrous.

The stakes in the political battle are very high. UKIP is attempting to revive the most right wing components of Tory politics of the 1960s. But the world has moved on. Increased migration is a global trend, which could only be slowed in Britain if falling living standards became a deterrent. Britain is going to become a more multicultural and multi-ethnic society, along with nearly all advanced economies and others.

A recent report by the right-wing think tank the Policy Exchange argues that the ethnic minority population of Britain could double in size from 14 per cent of the population currently to 20 to 30 per cent by the middle of the century. This has caused serious concern in Tory circles, with some arguing that the demographic trend poses an existential threat to the Tory Party. Irrespective of huge cultural and ethnic differences, and irrespective of social class, all ethnic minority communities in Britain overwhelmingly vote Labour.

In the US, the Republican Party is facing a similar problem. Like the Tories, their core vote is a declining proportion of the electorate. ‘We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term’ is how one Republican Senator puts it. However, the Tories long history is one of hostility to immigrants and their current electoral strategy is to follow UKIP. One of the reasons this cannot work is the increased hostility it generates from voters who are not racist and from the overwhelming majority of ethnic minority voters.

The same point is even more true as it applies to Labour. If it emulates UKIP with hostility to immigrants, or being ‘tough on immigration’ only UKIP can benefit. At the same, it is likely to repel a large section of its core vote, who will stay at home and dangerously depress its vote. It will also be impossible for Labour in government to grow the economy and simultaneously reduce immigration. The Tories have tried and failed.

Instead, Labour policy should be aimed at building a winning coalition that will reverse austerity, welcome the positive effects of immigration and respond to it with increased investment is housing, schools and the NHS. That is the way to defeat the politics of UKIP.