UKIP and the crisis of conservatism

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Strong votes for the United Kingdom Indepedence Party (UKIP) in recent by-elections has led to speculation that Britain may have shifted to the right. Jonathan Maunder argues that, although UKIP's vote is concerning, its root cause is a deep seated crisis in the base of the Tory party

The strong votes received by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in three by-elections in late November prompted speculation about the existence of a new right-wing mood in Britain. UKIP won 5.7 percent of the vote in Croydon, 11.8 percent in Middlesbrough and 21.8 percent to come second in Rotherham - the last result being its highest ever election vote. Opinion polling regularly puts UKIP on around 10 percent of the vote.

How significant is UKIP's support and how concerned should socialists be? Across Europe we are seeing the rise of parties of both the radical right and left, as societies polarise under the impact of the economic crisis. Whilst not fascist, UKIP is a party of the hard-right which campaigns not just against the EU but also against LGBT equality, for harsh immigration controls, deeper spending cuts and a quicker break-up of the NHS. In the European parliament it is in a grouping which includes the far-right, anti-gay United Poland party and the right-wing Italian Northern League.

Although UKIP inhabits the world of the hard-right it is important to distinguish it from fascist parties such as the BNP. The aim of fascism is to smash all working class organisation and ultimately all forms of democracy (including parliamentary democracy). It supports violent street attacks on black and Asian people, LGBT people, trade unionists, the left and others. This is why it is so important to mobilise against the fascists whenever they make an appearance.

UKIP comes from the traditional right-wing of UK politics - a lineage which includes Conservatives such as Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit as well as UKIP supporters like the recently deceased Patrick Moore. In other words: bigoted, nasty and slightly eccentric, but not fascist. Its party organisation is not of the disciplined combat form which characterises fascist parties. Rob Ford of the University of Manchester describes how "the party lacks candidates and activists willing to undertake the hard slog of local politics."

So where does UKIP's support come from? The party does seem to have gained support from a section of working class Labour voters - in 2009, 27 percent of UKIP supporters had voted Labour at the previous election, compared to 21 percent who had voted Conservative. This perhaps reflects how the poison of anti-immigration rhetoric pumped out by the press and politicians (including Labour ones, of course) has gained a hearing among some workers. This is combined with the intense bitterness that exists towards the establishment (including the EU) which UKIP has tried to tap into with slogans such as "Sod the Lot: Vote UKIP".

Therefore there are some former Labour voters, motivated by hostility to immigrants and/or anger at the establishment, who might vote for UKIP. However since the Tory-Liberal government was formed in 2010, UKIP support seems to be coming increasingly from disillusioned Conservative voters. In 2012 the polling data changed markedly - only 3 percent of UKIP supporters previously voted Labour while 37 percent previously voted Conservative. Under the hammer of austerity from a Tory government working class voters who flirted with UKIP might well be returning to Labour. UKIP certainly seems to be targeting "True Blue" Conservative voters as a priority.

After George Osborne's autumn statement UKIP's main objections were that he did not go far enough in cutting spending or attacking workers rights - hardly an appealing message for Labour voters. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has also used opposition to gay marriage in an attempt to peel away further Conservative votes.

Root of support

The most recent polls show that the increase in support for UKIP does indeed come mostly from Conservative voters. 15 percent currently say they will vote for UKIP in the next general election, compared to 3 percent of Labour voters. UKIP support is also higher among older voters, with 17 percent of the over 60s saying they'll vote UKIP in 2015 compared to 3 percent of 18-24 year olds. Around 35 percent of Conservative party members currently say they could vote for UKIP at the next general election.

This highlights how UKIP's rise in the polls is part of a larger story concerning a deep crisis within the Conservative party. The Conservative leadership is torn between satisfying the "True Blue" traditional core vote (which is declining) and the need to attract extra voters if it is to stand a chance of winning a majority at a general election. UKIP is exploiting this tension by wooing the "True Blue" vote - and having some success.

An interesting recent paper written by the Labour MP Jon Trickett for Compass, The Conservative Dilemma, makes clear the extent of the problem. Trickett argues that, "surface tensions [in the Conservative Party] reflect the underlying decay of the Tories traditional social base". He shows there is a clear decline in the Conservative vote from around 55 percent of the electorate in 1931 to 35 percent in 2012. The Tories have not won a majority at a general election for over two decades now. In 1992, the last time the Conservatives managed a majority at a general election, John Major received 14.1 million votes (41.9 percent) - since then the Conservatives have never won more than 10.7 million. Conservative strategist Lord Ashcroft estimates that there are currently 8.2 million core "True Blue" voters - nowhere near enough to win a general election.

The decline of the Tory vote
The same decline can be seen in party membership: in the early 1950s the Conservatives could claim nearly 3 million members, the latest figures show it is down to around 140,000. Another indicator of decline is the erosion of working class Toryism. For most of the 20th century roughly a third of workers voted Conservative. Following Thatcher and Major's devastation of working-class communities the working-class Tory vote has reduced dramatically.

As Chavs author Owen Jones has written, "while the Conservatives won over half the vote in Scotland in 1955, they amassed less than 17 percent at the last election. Liverpool used to be a heartland of working-class Toryism, but that seems almost absurd now and there is not a single Tory MP in the city. Do a search for 'Conservative' on the page listing Manchester's 95 councillors. You'll get one result - and he was elected as a Lib Dem".

The impact of this decline in the Tories ability to win a parliamentary majority is summed up in Lord Ashcroft's phrase, "The need for new supporters is a mathematical fact". This has been the impetus behind the "modernising" section of the party which David Cameron represents - they realised that they would have to reach beyond the core vote to have any chance of winning a general election. Cameron managed to get an extra 2.5 million votes beyond the core, allowing him to cobble together a coalition government. Trickett calls this new group the "2010 cohort". The problem for the Conservatives is that this group are not ideologically committed Tories - polling data shows that 60 percent support the aims of Greenpeace and 40 percent the aims of the Stop the War Coalition! The data also shows an important shift in early 2012 - the "2010 cohort" was opposed to the NHS bill (which deepened privatisation) and the April budget which cut taxes on the rich, and have since abandoned the party.

But for "True Blue" voters the party is still led by those weak "liberal conservatives" who replaced the party's torch logo with a drawing of a tree and want to "hug a hoodie" (for those who watch The Thick of It the hostility between "traditional" minister Peter Mannion and "modernising" spin doctor Stewart Pearson reflects this divide). "True Blues" want to see gay marriage stopped, faster and deeper spending cuts, stricter curbs on immigration and a British exit from the EU. Trickett argues that "there is a very high propensity among the true blue brigade to turn to UKIP".

A home for the disillusioned?
Therefore the Conservatives crisis is UKIP's gain - they can present themselves as the new home for the disillusioned Tory base. UKIP success in exploiting Tory divisions puts pressure on Cameron to tack to the right - as he has done over the EU - but if he goes too far he risks making the party unelectable. This is his dilemma.

The background to the rise in UKIP's support then is a crisis within the Conservative Party. Without understanding this it can seem that the votes and opinion poll support for UKIP heralds a right-wing shift in society, when in fact it is an outcome of the fragmenting of the Conservative Party's traditional base. This does not mean we should be complacent. A right-wing which is a minority can still be an organised force which influences a wider layer of people, especially when its views are amplified by sections of the media and pandered to by politicians. Socialists must be alert to the dangers of right-wing scapegoating and racism in an economic crisis, and be at the forefront of combating these trends.

Politically challenging racism and all attempts to divide workers is central to the development of effective resistance to austerity. The crisis is bringing both opportunities and dangers.