Bob's timely election coverage 1: On UKIP

In May, I wrote a series of blogposts in the aftermath of the European and local elections. I never actually posted them, because they needed some work and some added links. However, I noticed a lot of the issues circulating now in the wake of the Rochester and Strood by-election seem to resonate with the issues then, so I thought I'd just post them. First one today, then one a day for a couple of days. This one is the most "timely" in that it deals with UKIP, although events since May might show that I wasn't on the right lines on everything, though I think I was on many things. It makes three points, one about the significance of the UKIP results in May (about which I may have been overly optimistic), one about London, and one about the so-called "left behind". The third section is, I think, the most important and still most relevant, so if you don't have time for the whole post, skip to that bit.

The May 2014 UKIP earthquake was a relatively minor tremor

[This is the section that I perhaps got most wrong, as since then the UKIP tremor has become louder, and the defection of Tories provides UKIP with better caliber representatives.]

The biggest UK news of the elections, by media consensus, seems to be the alleged UKIP landslide. Forever associated with extreme weather and natural disasters since they blamed the flooding on gays, UKIP promised us a tsunami of Bulgarians that never came in January and have made us believe that there’s been a UKIP earthquake now. Meanwhile in the real world, they polled just over a quarter in the Euro elections (low turn-out elections in which people vote irresponsibly, to register a protest, knowing that they really don’t matter) and a mere 17% of the vote in the council elections, smaller than their share of the vote in 2013. The growth in the UKIP vote did not occur at the expense of the two main parties, whose share of the vote grew in the Euros from 43.7% in 2009 to 49.3% this year. UKIP’s result was a significant gain, but no earthquake.

An ocean of unnecessary ink has been spilled by pundits analysing the alleged earthquake, so I won’t say much more about this. Some of the key points are as follows. UKIP’s opinion polling position was not affected by any revelations about the swivel-eyed lunacy of several of their candidates (which is depressing), but their vote did not add up to their polling position (which is encouraging). Because it was a protest vote, UKIP cannily avoided scrutiny of their policies outside their core obsessions. And we know it was a protest vote from the amount of vote-splitting: clearly people who voted UKIP in the Euros voted for more sensible parties to actually run their councils; when it comes to voting for the national government, many people will take their choice even more seriously and keep away from UKIP.

The more time the media gaze focuses on UKIP, the more clear it will become that, apart from two or three articulate figureheads, they utterly lack in the human material to translate a Euro election protest vote into an electable party: as the 2015 elections approach, they will have to put together some kind of manifesto covering issues other than the EU and immigration and they will struggle to do it convincingly. Despite UKIP propaganda, voters know that it is MPs not MEPs who actually make UK law (including on our relationship to the EU and control of our borders): while the majority of voters want immigration drastically reduced, very few actually want UKIP’s other core goal, EU exit.

London is neither as exceptional nor as homogenous as the media tells us

[In light of the storm in a teacup about Islington's Emily Thornberry and her white van tweet, this section seems to even more relevant, but my fear is that the media orchestration of the "Islington" narrative will serve to deepen the London/non-London divide in British politics.]

The London-centric media has mirrored UKIP in spinning a narrative of media-savvy, metropolitan, multicultural London as utterly exceptional in the UK in rejecting the UKIP earthquake – a narrative that flatters both the chattering classes’ vanity and UKIP’s self-image as salt-of-the-earth underdog marginalised by a metropolitan elite.

However, for the narrative to be sustained several facts get in the way. First, Britain’s other large cities, most strikingly Manchester, rejected UKIP in the same way as London, but so did Scotland and Wales, as well as the borders and rural central England. Second, the whiter suburban fringes of London saw signs of the UKIP tremor in the same way as the adjacent regions (thus, in Lewisham, the whitest and most suburban wards in the southeast saw fairly high second place votes for UKIP in the local elections), showing the London/non-London border is a bit blurrier than the narrative suggests. 

But, third, it wasn’t just the multi-ethnic metrosexual parts of London that rejected UKIP: areas where “traditional” working class voters and lower middle class commuters live, such as Barking, Merton, Redbridge and Bermondsey turned against UKIP as decisively as the cappuccino belt did; in those areas, bread and butter issues like the NHS matter much more than the kulturkampf between metrosexuality and xenophobia.

The Tories are the main losers from UKIP, and the “left behind” narrative is flawed

[I think that the by-elections have substantially confirmed my analysis in this section, but that the argument I try to make here is actually quite a bit more urgent.]

Until recently, Labour and the left were very complacent about UKIP: it would split the right-wing vote, help Cameroonian Conservatism implode, and therefore open space for our lot. Actually, the election results suggest that that complacency was not completely misplaced. Labour won more council seats from the Tories than UKIP won from Labour. Cameron’s party is in meltdown as ideological factions closer to or further from UKIP slug it out.

However, the publication of Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right, a detailed analysis of the UKIP voting base totally changed the terms of the debate, once the chattering classes had absorbed its message, shaking Labour out of its complacency and, by election night, becoming the mainstream opinion of the punditariat.

Ford and Goodwin carefully and convincingly showed that the core UKIP voting base was a demographic they called the “left behind”, less educated, older, white working class men in post-industrial areas. Because this demographic has traditionally been part of the Labour core vote, they argued, the left behind’s defection to UKIP would harm Labour as well as – perhaps more than – the Tories.

The election results have partly borne out the Ford/Goodwin analysis. The East of England, the left behind heartland Ford and Goodwin spot-lit, indeed saw a strong UKIP performance. UKIP took seats in the industrial North as well as the blue rinse South.

However, historian Matt Cooper’s analysis of Ford and Goodwin’s data yields some interesting material. First, it is age rather than class which is the defining feature of the UKIP vote base: UKIP voters are ever so slightly more likely than the average voter to be working class, but much, much more likely than the average voter to be old.

More importantly, the Ford/Goodwin assumption that the working class UKIP supporters are turning from Labour ignores the significant right-wing current in the working class. Owen Jones’ recent New Statesman review of Selina Todd’s Rise and Fall of the British Working Class rightly points out that historians and social scientists have completely neglected the phenomenon of working class Tories. As with the Reagan Democrats who briefly returned to vote for Clinton, many working class Tories voted for Tony Blair in 1997. But the authoritarian populism of Powell and Thatcher has always had working class support.

So, it is true that Labour (and the left more broadly) needs to think about how to win working class Tories (and the Blue Labour project is one attempt at responding to this challenge), but it is not the case that Labour is hemorrhaging working class support to UKIP. In looking at the voting patterns in the European and especially council elections, it is clear that the UKIP vote hurt the Tories much, much more than it hurt Labour.

The danger in the mainstreaming of the Ford/Goodwin analysis is that it encourages Labour strategists to take up UKIP’s themes to win back the “left behind”. This can only encourage the temptation to engage in the immigration arms race, to indulge xenophobia, and to retreat further into the miserable Blue Labour Little Britainist campaign for a better yesterday. 

Also read [added 24 November]: Lisa McKenzie: The left out and their flags; Phil BC: Who is White Van Dan?; Miljenko W: The sleazy disuniting nation of #UKIPingdom; Dave Osler: UKIP can't be all things to all people; James Bloodworth: What the left should take from Rochester and StroodEric Kaufman: Don't jump to conclusions that Rochester is a bellweather for 2015

Next: All politics is local


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