UKIP recently held it’s leadership election, the result of which will be announced at their conference in Bournemouth later today. The party’s contest has largely been overshadowed by the similar process that has been going on in the Labour Party, but infighting has also turned the party from a political force influencing the nature of British discourse into an idealess vacuum. This is precisely the time for all political parties to strike, thus banishing UKIP into the annuls of history.
What was UKIP’s raison d’être? Why were UKIP popular in places around the country? Two reasons: euroscepticism; and immigration. UKIP’s stroke of genius, albeit genius couched in coded racism, was to link the EU with immigration. This solidified the vote of people who looked for a scapegoat and made them open to legitimate criticisms of the EU such as the democratic deficit and issues over sovereignty. Whether or not you agree with the criticisms of right-wing eurosceptics, if you looked through their prism of how they see politics then you could understand why they opposed the EU.
But the problem with right-wing euroscepticism is that it doesn’t solve the problems that people have correctly diagnosed. The anti-immigrant feeling present in British society is present, as far as I can tell, on three things: economics; fear of terrorism; and cultural change.
The jobs concern has some basic logic behind it- two people cannot have the same job therefore if one person has it another person cannot- but the problem with this is the fact that on a macroeconomic level immigration, especially from the EU, is a net benefit to the economy. The solution to this is what Jeremy Corbyn has already suggested, which is to reintroduce regional investment into areas with high levels of immigration, a policy that was scrapped by the Coalition. Further, the other pillar of the economic argument people make against immigration is about wages. Thankfully the EU has nothing to do with wage suppression so the government can tackle this problem by investing in tougher policing of the minimum wage. Undercutting of wages will become less common and therefore animosity towards immigration will also decrease.
The fear of terrorism is associated with immigration generally but this largely doesn’t apply to the EU. The fears that people have about terrorism are because of the Refugee Crisis and the perception of terrorists pretending to be refugees. All that I would say is that the vetting process by the UN and British authorities is such that such a fear is unfounded. Unfortunately this is an emotive issue, and one that will remain with people irrespective of logic, so the best thing to do is to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism- social alienation, inter-community tensions, poor economic opportunity etc.- and hope that this allays these fears.
Preventing people feeling that their culture is under threat is hard because it is entirely based on perception and thus is difficult to quantify. The grand irony of this situation is that some of the pillars of British culture historically are no longer observed for reasons completely unrelated to immigration. For example there are some sections of society who believe that Britain is a Christian country and it should remain that way, but more people are becoming irreligious and social conservatism among believers is also in decline. Immigration and the EU have nothing to do with people losing their belief in the doctrine of a church started by an obese ginger man who wanted to get divorced. The other thing that is amiss is that ‘British values’ don’t really exist. Things that people cite as British values like rule of law, democracy, rights of minorities etc. are not unique to Britain so, again, it’s difficult to have a reasonable discussion when we’re conceptualising such abstract ideas.
It’s going to be difficult to defeat these attitudes because they are wedded to identity politics, which are hard to predict as identity is something based in emotion rather than logic. The saving grace for people who dislike UKIP is that we can all agree on one talking point. If you are a Tory or a Lib Dem or a leftie like me we can all say the same thing: “what the point of UKIP now?”. Obviously we all know that UKIP have other policies that leaving the EU, but because the party have attempted to link almost everything thing back to ‘bloody Eurocrats’ we can now use their own messaging against them. In unison we can all turn to voters and say “we’ve heard your frustrations and hopefully we can regain your trust. But UKIP’s goal was singular and now it’s been achieved. We’re leaving the EU so what’s the point of them any more?”.
UKIP have enduring appeal in a variety of different parts of the country. The Left needs to recapture the working class vote in the North and Midlands which is currently supporting UKIP. We do this by tackling immigration head on as well as suggesting policies that end economic stagnation, many of which people like Jeremy Corbyn have already endorsed. Renationalising the railways, investing in local communities, ending a reliance on one industry to prevent whole towns from falling into economic malaise. These would all end the socio-economic problems that would lead people to irrationally scapegoat the EU or immigrants.
This two-pronged approach will irrevocably damage UKIP and prove that the whole party was a one man show. Labour and the Left more broadly need to speak to people’s concerns so that this brand of right-wing race-baiting is removed from the public discourse, and by recapturing working class voters across the country the Tories will be out of government by the next election.