UK: a dangerous shift to the right

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The shock results for Ukip are dragging mainstream politics further to the right, including the Labour Party. Mark L Thomas argues that this can only give a further boost to the racists.

Ukip's victory in the European elections last month marks a dramatic and dangerous development in British politics. Not since Herbert Asquith led the old Liberal Party to its final victory in 1910 has any party other than Labour or the Tories won a national election.

While the turnout in the European elections was low - and Ukip's 27.5 percent of the vote represents only 9 percent of the total registered electorate - and the media, especially the BBC, did amplify Ukip's success, there can be no complacency about the fact that a racist populist party won 4.35 million votes. This was an increase of 1.7 million on its previous record tally in 2004.

Ukip also won a further 161 local councillors, further entrenching itself in a series of towns and cities. While Ukip's projected share of the vote fell from 23 percent in last year's local elections to 17 percent this year, this should be placed alongside the fact that last May's local elections were predominantly for county councils while this year's were mainly in the big cities.

Ukip's rise reflects a shift to the right in mainstream politics and it is destablising the established parties as they search for an effective response.

The elections were a catastrophe for the Lib Dems, who lost all but one of their MEPs. The abortive coup by Lord Oakeshott seems to have failed after Vince Cable stepped back from an open challenge to party leader Nick Clegg. But simmering discontent is likely to be a feature of life for the Lib Dems as its MPs can now see the writing on the wall in next May's general election.

David Cameron took some comfort in that the Tories only finished two points behind Labour in the European elections. But Cameron immediately sought to assuage Tory Eurospectics by mounting a campaign of opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran EU fixer, as the next head of the European Commission.

Labour made gains by winning 324 more local councillors, but its overall projected share of the vote in the local elections was just 2 percent ahead of the Tories. In the 1996 local elections, the year before Labour returned to office, it was 16 percent ahead.

Although Labour saw its vote in the European elections rise by nearly 10 percent over its previous performance in 2009, that election was at the lowest point of Gordon Brown's popularity and represented Labour's worst ever result.

Labour still looks unconvincing as a future government - if it wins, it may well end up as a weak government with little popular mandate. It is paying the price for its failure to offer any alternative to austerity, and the bitter memories of New Labour's failures and betrayals in office.

Ukip's capacity to take seats even across a range of northern towns and cities has jolted Labour out of its complacent idea that Ukip is only a threat to the Tories. It won ten councillors in Rotherham, and in Barnsley it equalled Labour in the European elections. Across Sheffield, where Ukip won three councillors, it came a strong second to Labour, positioning itself as the key challenger to Labour.

Labour's toxic debate
But the debate in Labour is polarising between "Blue Labour" advocates of curbing immigration in the name of protecting workers from the ravages of the market and neoliberals like Tony Blair who want to keep Britain "open for business".

So the Labour MP John Mann has made calls for Labour to expose Ukip's Thatcherism but combined this with asking, "How is it fair that a youth can be born in a council house, live in it for 18 years and then lose out in allocation to a Polish family who have been in the country for a few months.

"How is this social justice? Why is it fair that a 58 year old man, disabled from coal mining, loses his incapacity benefit, but a family new to the country gets full housing benefit?"

Not only is this pandering to the myths and scapegoating put about by Ukip, but Mann goes on to equate the destructive effects of global capital with the free movement of labour in the European Union.

"It is not socially sustainable to allow flexible labour markets, free movement of labour and capital and have social justice. Why do people think that Google and Facebook base themselves in Ireland and Amazon in Luxembourg?... No free flow of capital to avoid taxes... No open market in labour in the United Kingdom... Ed Miliband needs to commit Labour to a people's Europe, by announcing that he will tear up the single market in labour and capital."

The powerless become the symbol - and scapegoat - for the powerful. Multinational corporate tax dodgers like Amazon are conflated with a migrant factory worker.

Calls to limit the free movement of workers were also made by John Prescott and John Denham, a former parliamentary aide to Ed Miliband. Denham disgracefully echoed the language of the right when he called on Labour to abandon its "politically correct" approach to immigration.

The signs are that the Labour leadership is responding to these calls. Ed Balls called for Labour to make "more noise" over immigration and Miliband's speech in Thurrock a few days after the elections linked the loss of secure jobs with immigration from Eastern Europe and a "growing west African community".

The response of two former Blairite ministers, Alan Milburn and John Hutton, in the Times was to warn against responding to Ukip's success with tightening immigration controls - "give an inch on this issue; Nigel Farage takes a mile."

But their reason was that, "A fortress Britain cannot work in a modern globalised economy." The Blairites see Miliband's willingness to take a harder stance on immigration as a sign of a supposed lack of commitment to the free market.

The arguments of Milburn, Hutton and Blair are dressed up as a form of anti-racist internationalism but in reality they are defending a world where capital can move without any democratic hindrance and draw on a vast pool of competing workers.

For the loudest voices inside Labour defending migrants to be those who are the greatest advocates of global capital would be a disaster.

What both those in Labour who equate workers' interests with restricting foreign labour and those who equate workers' interests with globalised capital have in common is that they both see the free movement of labour and capital as indissoluble.

But socialists should defend the right of workers to cross borders. The key to defending workers' interests is not more powers for border guards to discriminate, but the strengthening of working class collective organisation, above all in the workplace, and uniting all workers in Britain to challenge capital.

Hackney MP Diane Abbott has been one of the few voices among Labour politicians to challenge Miliband on a principled anti-racist basis insisting that the party should avoid "getting into the gutter with Ukip to tussle for anti-immigrant votes".

As she points out, echoing Ukip's arguments far from eroding its support will simply confirm the myths and prejudices it draws on.

Who voted for Ukip?
A major poll commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft immediately after the European elections suggested that just over half of Ukip's voters had voted Tory in 2010 while nearly a fifth had voted Lib Dem. Around 15 percent had voted Labour in 2010.

Steve Fisher, an Oxford academic, more speculatively suggests after an analysis of the shift in wards between the parties in the local elections on his electionsetc blog that "between 2010 and 2012 Ukip took votes mainly from the Conservatives, but between 2012 and 2014 they have had more success in attracting Labour voters."

The Black Country in the West Midlands provides one snapshot of an uneven pattern across the country. Ukip's fourth biggest haul of council seats came in Dudley where it gained seven seats. Ukip did take a previously solid Tory ward, but overall it seems to have hit the Labour vote harder than the Tories, across Dudley at least.

There is also some evidence that Ukip was able to tap into the "protest vote" that had previously gone elsewhere. So Ukip took a Dudley ward that has also previously elected a leading Green activist as councillor.

In Walsall, Democratic Labour, a local split from Labour, saw its vote slump in a ward it had been able in the past to get a councillor elected, with Ukip coming a strong second.

The Lib Dems lost both seats they were defending in Walsall to Ukip and the one Ukip gain in Wolverhampton was also the Lib Dems' one remaining seat on the council.

Another source of votes may well have been from people who had previously voted for the Nazi BNP. In three of the Dudley wards where Ukip won seats, the BNP had in the past decade been able to win over 20 percent of the vote.

This is also true in two of the three seats Ukip took in Walsall. The one Ukip gain in Sandwell was in a ward where the BNP came within 20 votes of taking all three councillors.

The rise of Ukip wasn't the cause of the BNP's decline - anti-fascist campaigns by Unite Against Fascism and others had already broken its base in places like Barking and Stoke in 2010, before the Ukip surge. But Ukip has benefitted from the BNP's decline.

So there is some evidence that Ukip is beginning, probably on a limited basis, to erode some sections of Labour's core vote even if it is still largely intact. Ukip is also picking up votes from other sections of workers who have in the past either looked to the Lib Dems or the Tories.

Leon Trotsky observed that he constantly came across three groups of workers - the minority of outright reactionaries who repeated the arguments of the ruling class and directed their frustrations at their fellow workers; another minority who consistently stood up for their fellow workers and challenged the bosses; and the majority, the "vacillating mass in the middle".

The key to the class struggle is to organise and give confidence to the class conscious minority so that they are able to exercise more influence over the middle ground and isolate the more backward, reactionary elements.

As we argued in December's Socialist Review, a majority of workers retain a basic class feeling and identity and remain committed to renationalisation of the railways and energy companies, as well as supporting state intervention to provide health services and to reduce inequality.

But over welfare benefits and immigration the picture is much less favourable, though there are deep reserves of anti-racism in British society, if they are mobilised.

The danger is that the rise of Ukip can boost the confidence of the more racist elements, increase their influence and start to marginalise the left wing ideas many workers hold. Labour's pandering to Ukip will not hinder this process.

Two things need to happen. Firstly, the Stand Up to Ukip campaign is vital to providing a genuine anti-racist challenge to Ukip that links the party's polices to its defence of big business and the bankers. Socialists need to fight to give it broad backing in every locality.

Secondly, the potential that exists to revive mass national strikes over pay and pensions across local government and the schools - and maybe other areas too - needs to be turned into reality. The curtailing by union leaders of the public sector fight over pensions in November 2011 helped create a vacuum from which Ukip has benefitted.

If over a million workers return to the streets and pickets lines next month this can provide an alternative to Ukip's scapegoating based on the fight against austerity by a multi-racial working class.

Many thanks to Martin Lynch for information about the Black Country
To sign the Stand Up To Ukip launch statement go to standuptoukip.org