Jo Cardwell looks at the trajectory of Ukip after their Clacton by-election victory, and sets out a plan of action to challenge their rise.
For the first time since the 1930s Britain is seeing the emergence of a racist populist party that has the ability to hold very large rallies. The rise of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) confirms that the “European disease” — populist racist and fascist parties — has now crossed the Channel.
In the run up to the Clacton-on-Sea by-election in August over 900 turned up to Ukip’s meeting in the town. During the Euro-elections last May its leader Nigel Farage spoke at 12 meetings across Suffolk, Essex and Kent that attracted over 400 people.
Its surge in votes in the two recent by-elections has triggered a political earthquake in British politics. Ukip won its first elected MP in the safe Tory seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea after the defection of Tory MP Douglas Carswell — overturning a huge Tory majority to secure 59.7 percent of the vote.
More shocking was the result in the safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester where Ukip gained 38.7 percent of votes, compared to 2.6 percent in 2010, just behind Labour’s 40.9 percent.
While it seems unlikely that Ukip could repeat such a result in the 2015 general election, it does mean that there are a number of seats where Ukip will pose a serious challenge to Labour. It is no longer simply a “Tory problem”.
Ukip’s success is part of a general rise of right wing racist populist and fascist parties in Europe. Publicly it keeps its distance from organisations such as the Front National in France, the jackbooted Hungarian Nazis in Jobbik, and Dutch racist Geert Wilders’s PVV. But behind the scenes it cooperates with the most reactionary organisations. It was the electoral breakthroughs of these Euro racist parties that convinced Farage to break out of single-issue politics — a referendum on EU membership — and turn Ukip into a serious political contender.
During its conference in Doncaster last September, Ukip published its provisional manifesto. This document shows that it is a thoroughly anti working class party: it supports free market politics, advocates massive cuts in the public sector and wants to reintroduce a two-tier education system. Following Farage’s conference speech, we now know Ukip’s strategy. In the short term it is going to continue to try and win over disillusioned Tories by driving hard on its anti-Europe and xenophobic message. It will also push its homophobic, anti gay marriage agenda as this “played out well amongst older Tory supporters”.
Farage believes Ukip can win between six and 12 MPs at the next general election. He is banking on the elections returning a weak Labour government that will be forced to implement more austerity, kowtow to Europe, and introduce “mass immigration and criminality”. He believes this will put Ukip in pole position for the 2020 elections.
Ukip’s recent successes are the result of three converging political issues: austerity, racism and anger at “the establishment”.
The economic crisis and years of austerity have left millions of people angry and disillusioned with mainstream politics. And as there is no clear left wing alternative, this has allowed Ukip to nimbly deflect that anger. Ukip has pounced on the racism that is being whipped up by Tories and Labour to ramp up its racism. It also likes to portray itself as an “anti-establishment” party, despite the fact that many of its leaders are wealthy business people and former Tory supporters.
This makes Ukip a dangerous party whose political impact is greater than its electoral success. The party is dragging British politics further to the right. Former Labour home secretary David Blunkett’s recent praise for Tory defence secretary Michael Fallon’s statements that some UK communities are being “swamped by Eastern European immigrants” is a case in point.
Some people believe that Ukip is a fascist party in the same mould as the BNP or Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Classic fascist parties combine electoral campaigns with mass street movements aimed at crushing all democracy and workers’ organisations.
Ukip is a reactionary and racist outfit, but it is not a fascist party. Its political roots are in the right of the Tory party, and it wants to bring about change through parliament, not on the streets. Unlike fascist parties it has no record of attempting to smash democratic organisations. Who votes Ukip is becoming a major debate in anti-racist and academic circles. Poll after poll shows that around half of those voting for it have defected from the Tory party. But Ukip is also trying to mop up disillusioned LibDem and Labour voters.
A YouGov poll conducted last February found that 11 percent of Ukip voters voted Labour in the 2010 elections. Two recent polls claim that this figure is now over 15 percent. Ukip is chasing working class votes with a combination of anti-establishment populism and crude racism. It is also courting former BNP voters in areas where the Nazis previously polled well, such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and Essex.
Farage recently told the Independent newspaper, “My anti-EU party had provided ‘frustrated’ people with a more suitable alternative to the far-right BNP.” He is courting former BNP organisers to get them to encourage ex-BNP voters to switch their vote to Ukip. But it is not all plain sailing. Ukip is unable to win votes among black and Asian voters, and has so far failed to attract a significant number of young people. A survey of voting intentions compiled by Robert Ford and Mathew Goodwin found only 12 percent of those under 35 would consider voting for the party.
The Labour Party and the union leaders have adopted a number of different positions towards Ukip. Before the by-elections they saw Ukip as a Tory problem and ignored it. Whatever Labour leaders are saying in public, in private they are terrified by Ukip’s electoral surge. In the aftermath of the by-elections Ed Miliband promised to “harden up” Labour’s policies on immigration, while sections on the right of the party are arguing that in order to undercut Ukip, Labour has to “talk tough on immigration”.
Others in Labour want to challenge Ukip and attack its anti working class policies, but don’t want to mention its racism. They believe that challenging Ukip over race will alienate potential Labour voters who agree with some of its policies, and even “encourage” them to vote Ukip.
Miliband’s plan is to harden Labour’s stance on immigration and at the same time try to push the political agenda onto more friendly terrain, such as defending the NHS. But by adopting a more racist agenda it will pollute the political climate as well as deepen the despair and anger many feel with Labour leaders. However, the rapid shift in the political climate also means there are many trade unionists and grass roots Labour Party members who reject any attempt to pander to racism and feel that it is time for action.
The success of Ukip highlights the state of mainstream politics. If we are going to reverse its gains we need to encourage the resistance to austerity and build the Stand Up to Ukip campaign (Sutu). This is a broad based campaign with the aim of undermining Ukip by challenging its racism as well as its pro-market and anti working class policies.
The left must work to encourage all the forms of resistance to austerity — strikes, housing campaigns, occupations, anti-bedroom tax campaigns, the Scottish Yes campaign — as an antidote to Ukip. These campaigns can direct people’s anger towards the government and the bosses and away from scapegoating migrants, and have the potential to undercut racist divide and rule policies by uniting black, white and Asian workers alongside migrant workers. Alongside this we need Sutu to take on Ukip directly. So far Sutu has organised a number of initiatives. These include the 1,000-strong demonstration outside Ukip’s national conference in Doncaster, a picket of its London rally and other protests and lobbies.*
As well as organising a national campaign against Ukip in the run up to the general election, Sutu will be organising a number of local campaigns in key Ukip target seats. Central to this initiative will be building local groups that can campaign on the ground. This involves making links with all those trade unions, Labour MPs and councillors, anti-racist organisations, Roma groups, faith groups and others who want to challenge Ukip head on.
Sutu’s founding statement is supported by many trade union leaders and MPs such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. Many local councillors have also signed, showing that there is a broad and viable opposition to Ukip.
Just as we were able to turn the tide against the BNP and EDL, we can turn the tide against Ukip.
*This paragraph has been changed to correct an editing error in the print edition.