It’s difficult to explain the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to an international audience without giving readers the feeling of watching the latest installment of The Walking Dead having not seen any previous episodes (“Is it always like this?” “Pretty much.”) The right-wing party has grown in influence over the past few years, culminating in its unprecedented performance in last year’s elections for the European Parliament, where it won 27 per cent of the vote – more than any other party. This is especially significant in the context of the UK, where the political landscape has been traditionally operated as a two-party system dominated by Labour and the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats grabbing the odd vote from people in the middle.
With an election due in May, polls are predicting that no party will get overall control. The prospect of either a minority government or another coalition means smaller parties could make a difference, first through entering a coalition with a larger party, and second through eating away support from their more established rivals. The most notable example is the predicted landslide victory for the Scottish National Party in Scotland, where it is set to take nearly every seat, mostly from Labour. There are also the Greens, whose anti-austerity, pro-environment message has been taken up by legions of mainly younger voters, but who are currently on around 5 per cent compared to UKIP’s 12 per cent.
UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage does stand out on this increasingly robotic political landscape. He is often pictured with his trademark pint of beer, and cigarette hanging between grinning lips, projecting an everyman image miles away from the polished Westminster career politician. The media has lapped this up, putting Farage on TV more often than repeats of Family Guy.
His party was founded as a movement to break from the European Union, but its main line of attack is tapping into relatively widespread opposition to immigration. The latest British Social Attitudes report found that 77 per cent of the British population want immigration reduced, while another poll claimed that 48 per cent of people planning to vote UKIP cited immigration as their main motivation. It’s worth noting here an important part of the BSA findings, which is that people in areas of high immigration have a far more positive view of it. Other research shows that UKIP draws its support largely from areas where immigration is at its lowest.
There is widespread public misconception over the issue, thanks to a sustained campaign of scaremongering from politicians and tabloid newspapers. One Ipsos-Mori poll in 2013 found that the average person thought that 31 per cent of the British population was made up of immigrants, when the actual figure was just 13 per cent. Connected to this, the same poll also uncovered the public misconception that 24 per cent of people in England and Wales are Muslim, when the real figure is just 5 per cent.
It is also rarely mentioned that immigration is good for the economy, with European migrants making a net contribution of £20 billion through taxation in 2010-11 alone.
UKIP thus conjures up an imaginary enemy, onto which the problems of the world can be projected, using dog whistle politics at their most shocking. Last year, for example, Farage argued that banning people with HIV from entering Britain would be a “good start” to reducing immigration, and this month said the same of terminally ill people. He has also said that he finds it “awkward” when he hears people speak other languages on the train, and was roundly condemned by anti-racism groups for saying in an interview, “I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.” Immigration, it turns out, is even to blame for traffic jams.
But one interview last month showed him at his most divisive, mixing the complex issues of immigration, multiculturalism and Islam into a weave of scary confusion. “People do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us,” he said. “There is an especial problem with some of the people who’ve come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don’t want to become part of our culture. So there is no previous experience, in our history, of a migrant group that comes to Britain, that fundamentally wants to change who we are and what we are.” To top the interview off, when asked if laws banning employers from hiring people on the basis of their ethnicity or nationality would exist under UKIP, he responded, in an audacious twisting of logic, “No… because we take the view, we are color-blind. We as a party are color-blind.”
Of all the claims Farage could make about UKIP’s qualities, “color-blindness” is pretty much on par with “calypso singing” as the least credible. One now former party councillor, Rozanne Duncan, in South Thanet where Farage hopes to win a seat in May, recently said – in front of a BBC film crew – that she didn’t like people with “negroid features“. Another used the derogatory term “chinky” to describe the Chinese (and was defended by Farage for doing so). And then there’s former UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who said that recipients of foreign aid lived in “Bongo Bongo Land” (he eventually resigned after calling an audience of women “sluts” and then assaulting a TV journalist on camera with a rolled up magazine).
But it’s unfair to focus solely on UKIP’s unfortunate attitude to race relations. Farage also thinks that women should be told not to breastfeed in public, that parts of the UK are now under Sharia law (on Fox News, where he presumably thought he’d get away with it), and that wind turbines should be, er, blown up. As party general secretary Matthew Richardson put it, “People talk about UKIP being full of bigots – there are hundreds of thousands of bigots and they deserve to be represented.” Touché.
I’ve probably made the point by now that UKIP are not the most tolerant of people (and if you need more evidence there is a painstakingly detailed record of similar scandals on the Angry Meditations blog). But the big question is, why are people voting for them? Are we a nation of racists?
The continued policy of appealing to the political centre puts little between the big three parties. They largely agree, for example, that the budget deficit has to be cut through austerity, that net migration is too high, and that anti-terrorism laws targeting Muslims need to be perpetually reinforced.
What UKIP does is spin the idea that it is saying something different. It’s a bit like the Tea Party in tweed, with Farage pitching himself as taking on an establishment so paralyzed by “political correctness” it has been unable to talk about things like immigration, multiculturalism and Islam. It has even been unable to talk about the National Health Service, which Farage would like to replace with a system of insurance, like the one that works so well nowhere. But this is all nonsense. These issues are constantly discussed and are often central planks of political manifestos. But in constantly saying that people can’t discuss them, Farage is creating the illusion that this is the main form of oppression exerted on Britain’s long-suffering white, English, male, heterosexual population.
But Farage is about as anti-establishment as a royal garden party. A privately educated former city broker and Margaret Thatcher devotee, his political strategy is simply to take one step further to the right than any other party. In taking this step to the right, he builds on the foundation created by the mainstream political elite, with its shifting of the blame for economic strife onto people at the bottom of society. For example, when Farage proposed scrapping anti-discrimination laws, Farage was able to quote former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who called for “British jobs for British workers”.
There is no genuine, concerted attempt to challenge these myths among the mainstream, and in the absence of Farage and co’s extreme views seem validated. UKIP are leeching support mainly from the Tories, who, in turn, copy and paste UKIP policies into their own manifesto, from a referendum on European Union membership to promising (and then failing) to drastically limit net migration. One recent poll of UKIP supporters suggests that 45 per cent voted Tory in the 2010 general election, with 14 per cent voting for Ukip previously and another 14 per cent for the Lib Dems. Only 10 per cent defected from Labour.
But what’s really important here are the things UKIP won’t talk about so much, like privatizing the NHS and giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy. Its stance on Europe is largely rooted in its opposition to the limited powers the EU has in terms of issues like working conditions, environmental protection and human rights. UKIP denounces even these modest measures as red tape put up by EU bureaucrats to restrict economic freedom. This extreme neoliberal ideology is at the core of UKIP. It stands in the time honoured tradition of shifting the blame away from the real crooks, the real people ripping life out of communities and the real people stealing jobs, like a burglar shouting “THE ROMANIANS DID IT!” as he runs out through your front door with the TV.
The immediate danger is not that Farage will move his drinks cabinet into 10 Downing Street any time soon. The danger is that every time he is pulled up in front of the media to make a scatter-gun speech about how eggs tasted better before Polish migrants changed the recipe, or how full-blooded British men are going to be forced to wear the niqab because of Sharia law, he fuels the arms race of misinformation and intolerance. If politicians of other parties, not to mention the over-excited media, grew a backbone and talked about the real benefits of migration, the actual causes of the economic crisis and took a less inflammatory approach to Islam, that would be a good start. And if those politicians actually did something to put people’s needs first, rather than those of big business and bailed out banks, perhaps people wouldn’t be so easily conned into fighting one another rather than questioning the system that goads them on.