Revolt on the Right is a thoughtful, well written and well researched book, with easy to follow arguments and useful detailed statistical data. It’s also a book that should make us all feel deeply concerned.
I’ve seen the rise and (thankfully) the demise of a number of extreme right wing parties in Britain since arriving as an immigrant in the 1950s. I know first hand how they feed off deprivation, neglect and fear. At the recent elections we heard a lot about the newest racists on the block and these ones, compared to the EDL or the BNP, are slick. Understanding their potential supporters, UKIP have broadened their focus from a single issue, harnessing anti-European feeling as a cover for their xenophobia to take a creatively vague, right wing approach to domestic politics. According to Revolt on the Right, they know they need to distance themselves from the BNP and fascism; many of their supporters are too proud of the Churchillian stand against Hitler to want to go that way. So by waving the flag and being careful to focus on immigration while (superficially at least) rejecting racism, they are gaining working class support. This is the message of Revolt on the Right.
UKIP was founded by a disaffected Liberal Democrat and a group of middle class, anti-European activists, academics and millionaires in 1993 at the old home of radical politics, the London School of Economics. They were slow to grow. Until recently they were still seen as a party of fanatics and loonies – after all, didn’t we need some comic relief as the Coalition government began to slash and burn public services? Then the scene changed. Suddenly UKIP were being called a force in British politics – looks like it’s time to stop just laughing.
Revolt on the Right examines the rise of UKIP and what changed in British politics to allow them to occupy such a successful position. The book should be a wake up call for Labour, a book anyone knocking on doors in the run up to next year’s General Election needs to read. It shows what some of us have long suspected – Labour is as vulnerable to UKIP as the Tories.
New Labour’s goal was office. They were not interested in the reorganisation of society. Socialist ideas like redistribution were thrown out, Clause IV discarded. We were told free markets would bring a better quality of life for all. And in any case, in a post-industrialised society, who needed the working class? They would simply, in the end, cease to electorally matter.
Dissenting voices were silenced. After 18 years of living in the wilderness of opposition the threat of another electoral defeat was enough to bring dissenters to heel – and (mostly) keep them there. New Labour decided to court middle class, middle of the road voters and disregarded working class supporters, destabilising traditional links between Labour and its core voters. Neo-liberal policies, initiated by the Tory administration, were continued by both the Blair and Brown administrations. The strategy appeared to work. New Labour got office – but at a cost we’re still paying.
Revolt on the Right shows how New Labour’s abandonment of its working class voters, what the authors call the “left behind”, has contributed to the rise of UKIP. The figures are clear. During the Blair/Brown administrations more UKIP voters defected from Labour than any other party. Since its low point in 2009-10 the Labour Party saw a 10% rise in support from middle class voters, from women and from those who are university educated. In the same period, at a time of savage government cuts aimed at the poorest and most disadvantaged, the Labour Party saw a measly 3% rise in white, male, working class voters and no rise at all from those of pensionable age. Farage was aware of the
potential for UKIP of support from disaffected Labour voters. Since 2009, when UKIP began to target them, the growth in their working class membership has speeded up.
UKIP’s supporters are easy to profile. At the moment they tend to come from a narrow base. They are older, white, males who left school at 16. They like the NHS and the monarchy. According to Revolt on the Right UKIP now have proportionately more working class members than any other party, with 42% of their membership blue collar workers or the unemployed.
Ex-Labour supporters of UKIP feel betrayed, have a sense of having been abandoned by Labour, a feeling that their interests have been put behind minority groups and the middle class. UKIP’s focus on Europe, a central concern of their middle class and millionaire founders, is not a priority to these supporters. They’re interested in immigration and crime. They have a deep sense of pessimism, feel aggrieved at having been left behind, think the country’s going to the dogs and are cynical about the political class.
UKIP’s strategy of targeting disaffected white, working class voters is still paying off. The BBC election database in 2013 suggests UKIP took more votes from Labour than from the other parties.
There is no doubt that UKIP has been helped by the combination of a Coalition government and a weak opposition, picking up the protest vote against all three major parties. In addition, it has succeeded in shifting the political debate to the right. According to the authors, “left of centre” parties now face a crucial issue – how to maintain support from middle class voters while appealing to their traditional core supporters in the working class.
The message is clear. It is time for Labour to challenge the old strategies of New Labour, to focus again on its working class supporters. Labour and the Coalition have tried joining the UKIP game on immigration, promising lower quotas, reducing access to benefits. It’s a losers’ game that will inevitably give UKIP increased viability. Any attack on UKIP needs to be strategic, based not solely on their response to immigration but on a critique of their reactionary domestic policies which will injure their own supporters proportionately more than anyone else. Labour also needs to put forward positive, radical policies on issues such as housing, the rail system and the NHS.
Fortunately, for the moment, UKIP’s support appears pretty geographically evenly spread. They have a huge hurdle to climb to beat the first past the post system. Farage has said, “In four or five years time, if you come to see me, UKIP will be a party that has far more Labour support than Tory support. That’s where it’s going. I can see it. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the traditional Labour socialist party that’s got the biggest problem in this country”. We need to ensure Farage eats his words.