The success of UKIP in this week’s local elections, hailed by Nigel Farage and his cheer-leaders in the right-wing press as a “game changer” means the left can no longer afford to shrug the party off as “just a distraction.” UKIP won 147 seats (of which 139 were gains) and averaged 25% of the vote in the wards where it stood. On the basis of these results, the BBC projected national share of the vote put Labour in the lead with 29% of the vote, the Tories second on 25% and UKIP third with 23%. The Lib Dems would trail with just 14%. Of course, these results may not carry over to a general election, especially as the vote was only in England (plus Anglesey), and excluded the main urban areas. Nevertheless, UKIP is clearly now a serious force in mainstream British electoral politics.
So now seems a good time to consider what social forces UKIP represents, and especially its place on the populist far right of British politics. We republish below a remarkably prescient article from Searchlight magazine of June 2012, analysing the rise of UKIP and its links with the fascist and semi-fascist far right. The headline above this post is ours, not Searchlight‘s, by the way: their title for the article was UKIP at the Crossroads.
Above: Farage triumphant
UKIP at the crossrooads
By Adam Carter
Recent events have created a seemingly perfect storm for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the right-wing populist eurosceptic party that has supplanted the British National Party as the main electoral force to the right of the Conservative Party. The economic chaos in the Eurozone, pressures on public finances in the struggling UK economy, widespread disillusionment with the mainstream parties and growing criticism of the European Court of Human Rights for its handling of terror suspect Abu Qatada all suggest that the time might be ripe for UKIP to make the transition from single-issue pressure group to successful populist party. The fact that UKIP has recently been polling close to the Liberal Democrats with 8% in recent national opinion polls certainly suggests that it is in a stronger position than ever before to emulate other populist radical right parties in Europe.
There were however mixed fortunes for UKIP in the aftermath of the (2012) local elections. The eurosceptic party could draw some satisfaction from the results and the evident disquiet that its electoral prospects had provoked in the Conservative Party. But on the downside, it failed to gain representation on the London Assembly, largely as a result of a clerical error, and became enmeshed in more controversy about UKIP’s links with extremist groups and individuals. Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, UKIP’s Scottish leader and head of its policy unit, was criticised after he called for members of the extreme-right British Freedom Party (BFP), which has recently joined forces with the Islamophobic street thugs of the English Defence League, to “come back and join us”. Other accusations of extremism were levelled at UKIP candidates in Sheffield and Oxford.
UKIP polled better than expected with its highest ever average share of the vote in local elections. The average of about 14% in the 700-plus seats that it contested was five points higher than a year ago although the party made no net gains leaving it with just 25 councillors (it has more at parish level). The result was described by the party leader Nigel Farage as “good steady progress”. This came on the back of the parliamentary by-election result in Barnsley Central in March 2011 where UKIP’s candidate finished second ahead of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and took 12% of the vote.
In the London Assembly elections UKIP blamed “an internal error” after its candidates were listed on the ballot paper as “Fresh Choice for London” rather than UKIP and as a consequence the party failed to have any members elected. In the run-up to the vote, UKIP had been been polling about 8% in the capital which would have translated into third place in the mayoral race for its candidate Lawrence Webb and possibly two seats in the Assembly, where UKIP has had no representation since its two members defected in 2005.
Although its representation on a local level is still small, despite making serious efforts to change this, UKIP is now unquestionably established as Britain’s fourth political party with 12 MEPs and two representatives in the House of Lords (both defections from the Conservatives). Its support in local and general elections has undoubtedly cost the Conservative party seats by splitting the right-wing vote. In recent months there have also been a number of defections from the Conservative Party to UKIP including Roger Helmer, the opinionated MEP, Alexandra Swann, the 23-year-old former deputy chairman of the Tory youth wing Conservative Future, and several councillors in Windsor and elsewhere.
This competition on their right flank has not been lost on the Tories themselves. The Conservative party chairman Baroness Warsi generated a political storm on the eve of the May elections when she alleged that the rise of UKIP was linked to the decline of the BNP (which only fielded 136 candidates). Warsi stated, “Where UKIP is fielding candidates this time that the BNP did last time but they’re not this time, I think that will have an impact. There are members of UKIP who are from all sorts of political parties, but it is an interesting mix there in terms of the number of candidates.”
Such Conservative attacks on UKIP are not new. Former Tory leader Michael Howard famously labelled UKIP supporters “cranks and gadflies” (which UKIP has since adopted as a badge of honour) and David Cameron called them “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”. However Warsi’s comments still provoked a predictably furious response from UKIP. Gavin Towler, a UKIP spokesman, reacted strongly on Twitter by calling Warsi “a bitch” before deleting his tweet and apologising, while Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s deputy leader, stated that Warsi’s comments were “disgraceful” and “a sign that the Conservatives are very scared of UKIP”.
Although Warsi was almost certainly overstating the case, academic research into who votes for UKIP has revealed that its support base is to a significant extent drawn from those who would also back the BNP. There is often a link in voters’ minds between the anti-immigrant populist rhetoric of both parties and UKIP appears keen to tap into this potential electoral pool. According to Professor Peter John and Professor Helen Margetts, UKIP “draws upon the same source of social and political attitudes among the public as the BNP and has the potential to convert such attitudes into votes”.
More recently, a study by Dr Robert Ford and Dr Matthew Goodwin distinguishes between ‘strategic’ UKIP voters who tend to be disaffected Conservatives supporting the party in European elections and UKIP’s ‘core’ voters who tend to be “a poorer, more working class and more deeply discontented group who more closely resemble supporters of the BNP and of European radical right parties”. Their research suggests that UKIP has the greater long-term potential to appeal to the populist anti-immigrant vote. “UKIP’s credentials as a legitimate party of right-wing protest over Europe may make it a ‘polite alternative’ for voters angry about rising immigration levels or elite corruption but who are repelled by the stigmatised image of the more extreme BNP which, as polling data reveals, has struggled to portray itself as a credible political choice”.
As well as being a threat to the BNP vote, UKIP is obviously eating into the core Conservative vote as well. In the wake of the elections, in which the Conservative Party lost over 400 seats, several Tories went public with their criticism of their own party leadership as a result of losing ground to UKIP. In Plymouth, in the southwest of England, which is traditionally UKIP’s heartland, the local Conservative MP Gary Streeter claimed Tory voters switching to UKIP was responsible for his party losing control of Plymouth council to Labour. “We need to work out a strategy, certainly in the West Country, for dealing with the issue of traditional voters shuffling off and voting UKIP because they don’t think our leadership is Conservative enough,” he said. The outgoing council leader Vivien Pengelly also blamed UKIP for the Tory defeat stating, “They did us a lot of damage. They cost us control – definitely – and I think the Government must stop and listen to what UKIP is saying. The sooner we have a referendum on Europe the better. I shall be writing to David Cameron and saying: Please listen to the people of the South West.”
It remains to be seen whether the Conservative Party will shift its policies even further to the right on issues such as Europe and immigration to avoid losing further ground to UKIP. At present David Cameron is caught between the need to keep his Liberal Democrat coalition partners on board and demands from the disillusioned right wing of his own party for even tougher measures. Cameron’s failure to deliver the promised referendum on the EU Lisbon treaty continues to rankle with Tory eurosceptics but he is in hock to the most pro-Europe of the mainstream parties. Given the widespread public disenchantment with coalition economic policies, which are quite rightly seen as benefiting the wealthy at the expense of ordinary working people, it is possible that Cameron may flirt with anti-immigration and anti-Europe rhetoric or identity politics (eg the Tory right assault on gay marriage) to distract from economic concerns. But to do so in any meaningful way ahead of a general election campaign would run the risk of precipitating the downfall of the coalition government.
While the Conservative hierarchy is torn on whether to emphasise anti-EU policies, UKIP has gone the opposite way by trying to develop a raft of policies to change the public perception that it is a one-trick pony obsessed with the EU. In the past UKIP has struggled to develop a serious programme of policies, reflecting its origins as an obsessive single-issue campaign group but also indicative of the fact that its members originally come from a number of different political parties and were perhaps only unified ideologically by their euroscepticism. In recent years however Farage has tried to recast UKIP’s ‘independence’ as not being solely about independence from the EU but about a broader libertarian conception of individual freedom and minimal state intervention. He has changed the rhetoric on governance from focusing on problems with the EU to issues connected with governing the UK. The party’s 2012 local election manifesto covered traditional voter concerns such as crime, education, housing, transport, tax and health, as well as its more familiar territory of withdrawal from the EU and immigration, and in recent years UKIP has issued more detailed policy documents in many of these areas. There has also been a commitment to local democracy and decision-making by advocating Swiss-style referendums to vote on particular measures.
Behind the libertarian and democratic rhetoric and UKIP’s assertions that it is non-racist, its policies on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism have little to do with libertarianism (which to be consistent with its belief in minimising the role of the state should advocate the free movement of people between countries) and much in common with the conventional extreme right. UKIP attacks multiculturalism stating in its immigration and asylum policy that it intends to “end the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism by local and national government and all publicly funded bodies” and its severe strictures demand “an immediate five-year freeze on immigration for permanent settlement” as part of a raft of authoritarian measures on the issue. UKIP representatives have also spoken out repeatedly on cutting funding to groups advocating equal rights and committed to improving race relations. Its environmental policy comes close to climate change denial, a position that Viscount Monckton has openly supported.
Flirting with extremism
The contradictions in UKIP’s difficult position somewhere between civic nationalism and the ethnic nationalism of the conventional extreme right were exposed in a story on the Liberal Conspiracy blog. It revealed that in an interview Monckton had urged members of the British Freedom Party to join UKIP. The BFP is led by former UKIP member Paul Weston, features many former BNP members among its ranks and recently joined forces with the EDL. Monckton declared, “UKIP is, for all its faults, the biggest of the freedom loving, democracy loving, independent-minded parties. And I don’t like this splitting off, which is very prone to happen in those smaller parties … But the British Freedom Party won’t really come to very much, I don’t think, and I would very much like them to come back and join us and we stand together.”
After the story appeared, UKIP responded by stating, “Membership is not available to anyone who is or has previously been a member of the BNP, NF, BFP, British People’s Party, EDL, Britain First or the UK First Party. Any applications made from people who are or have been members of these organisations will be refused, and any subscriptions collected will be refunded. By applying for membership you certify that you are not and have never been a member of any of these parties. Christopher Monckton has been out of the country for almost the whole of this year, and it is unlikely that he has been following the details of our NEC meetings. To that end he was entirely mistaken in his view. Members and former members of the BFP are not welcome in UKIP.” At best, it is embarrassing that a senior party figure was unaware of his own party’s policies, at worst it was an open invitation to the extreme right to join UKIP.
This was not an isolated case of unwelcome links with extremist views. In Sheffield UKIP candidate Steve Moxon was stripped of his candidacy after writing a blog that endorsed the reasoning in the testament of the extreme-right Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik.
In Oxford the UKIP candidate Dr Julia Gaspers was accused of homophobia after making intemperate comments that linked homosexuality with paedophilia. This is not the first time that UKIP has been mired in accusations of homophobia. One of UKIP’s former MEPs, Nikki Sinclaire, won a case of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality against the party in 2010. Boxing promoter Frank Maloney stood as a UKIP candidate in the 2004 mayoral election in London and was widely condemned after stating that he would not be campaigning in Camden because there are “too many gays”. He said, “I don’t want to campaign around gays … I don’t think they do a lot for society.”
With friends like these
UKIP’s proximity to extremist tendencies can also be witnessed in its partners in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament, which include right-wing populist parties that campaign on an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ticket such as the Northern League (Lega Nord, Italy), Slovak National Party (Slovakia) and People’s Orthodox Rally (usually abbreviated to LAOS, Greece). UKIP has also been building links with Geert Wilders’s Islamophobic Freedom Party in the Netherlands over several years including hosting a viewing of his film Fitna in the House of Lords in 2010. UKIP’s 2011 party conference featured speakers from the Dutch Freedom party and the Finnish True Finns party. In 2012 Nigel Farage was guest of honour at a reception hosted by the ultra-nationalist LAOS.
The current political climate certainly bodes well for UKIP and it appears to be well placed to mop up support from BNP voters as that party goes into further decline, as well as from its traditional disaffected Conservative eurosceptic base. However the history of UKIP indicates that it will need to overcome its propensity to be bedevilled by its own internal contradictions – a libertarian party with authoritarian policies, an anti-EU party with its strongest representation in the EU, a populist party with an upper-class leadership, a naturally conservative party that despises the Conservative party, an avowedly non-racist party that needs to attract the support of racists, a rural dominated party that will need to appeal to the urban working class – if it is to make a more sustained electoral breakthrough. But we would be foolish to write off its prospects.