It’s early days yet, but the first signs this morning are that Ukip has made predictably big gains in local council elections. This does not yet constitute the ‘political earthquake’ that Farage and his cohorts have predicted. So far Ukip has not gained control of any councils, it has failed to make any significant headway in London. Nevertheless it has gained 89 seats and will certainly gain more, and it will probably do even better when the European Parliament results come in by Sunday.
From the point of view of progressive politics, there is no way to avoid the fact that this outcome is a disaster, and the fact that it has not come as a surprise doesn’t make it easier to swallow. Ukip was one of about five anti-immigrant parties on offer, and its surge appears to have been entirely unaffected by the almost constant stream of statements from its candidates over the last few weeks, which reveal a party saturated to its core with the most vicious xenophobia, bigotry and racism, with reactionary attitudes to women, gays, the disabled.
Its campaign was based on fake soundbites, manipulative fantasies and flagrant lies that were deliberately designed to generate anti-foreigner hatred and appeal to popular prejudices, from its poster suggesting that 26 million Europeans were intent on coming to the UK, to Farage’s utterly false claim that ’75 percent of our laws are now made in Brussels’.
None of this appears to have made any difference – and the flow of revelations may even have helped Ukip. Because it is now depressingly clear that these sentiments are shared by a significant section of the British electorate, which either openly espouses or simply ignores them in its desire to ‘rebel’ against a despised political class and assert its darkest and most primeval political instincts against the straightjacket of ‘political correctness’ that supposedly stopped its ‘concerns’ from being heard.
These ‘concerns’, when all is said and done, when the various evasions and euphemisms and the dim mantras about ‘controlling our borders’ are stripped away, essentially boil down to a visceral fear and loathing of ‘immigrants’ that increasingly appears impervious to facts or rational argument..
Opinion polls consistently demonstrate that much of the British public has an exaggerated impression of the numbers of migrants actually in the country. In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, Ukip – with the willing support of all three parties and large sections of the British press – cynically and wilfully whipped up fears of an ‘invasion’ of ‘benefit tourists’ that was based on nothing more than fear and prejudice, and which never materialised.
The fact that this invasion did not take place once again had no impact on the party that was most responsible for propagating the myth in the first place. Ignorance about immigration is also accompanied by ignorance about Europe, and the two are in fact inseparable. There are many reasons to be critical of the EU, and it is certainly correct to argue that the European Union often acts in a blatantly anti-democratic and unaccountable way – something that we have seen again and again in the savage austerity cuts that have devastated the eurozone and southern Europe in particular.
But the EU didn’t impose austerity in the UK. It didn’t order the ongoing privatisation of the NHS and the Royal Mail – both institutions that you would expect even Little Englanders to feel strongly about. It didn’t introduce university fees. It didn’t cause the UK financial crisis or the ‘bailouts’ that the public has been cajoled into any paying for while its public services are being ruthlessly stripped and outsourced – to the point when even child protection services are now being farmed out to the likes of Serco and G4S.
None of this was even discussed in the campaigning of the last few weeks. For many of Ukip’s voters it is clear that the main – if not the only – factor in its loathing of the EU and the ‘dictatorship of Brussels’ is the perceived ‘open door’ policy on immigration, ie. the free movement of labour, one of the most positive things that the EU has done, which Farage and co. loathe with a dangerous and corrupting passion.
Like the far-right and its newer populist variants elsewhere, Ukip offer a new kind of ‘respectable’ racism, which talks about nationality or culture rather than biology or blood, which feeds on unspoken prejudices and assumptions that do no need to be articulated in order to have an effect – of a once-pristine country made unrecognizable by a babel of European languages; of ‘swamping’ by Eastern European countries perceived as collectively poor and crimina; of ‘human rights gone mad’ policies emanating from Brussels that allow criminals and rapists to infest our shores; of foreign usurpers taking ‘our’ schools and ‘our’ NHS.
Like the Front National in France, Ukip’s populism is to some extent a protest against globalisation and the ‘de-terroritorialisation’ and ‘borderlessness’ of capital and labour in the last three decades, but it has no solutions to offer except to retreat into a doomed retrograde nationalism that will – if left unchecked – lead to cultural, moral and economic disaster.
The political class, while recognizing this – and mostly rejecting Ukip’s anti-Europeanism – has nevertheless pandered to its anti-immigrant agenda, because it recognizes that talking about immigrants is a politically convenient distraction.
You cannot combat Ukipised politics, as Ed Miliband tried to, by defending Farage against accusations of racism and declaring your willingness to ‘understand’ Ukip’s concerns in order to preserve your core vote, and then apologising yet again for Labour’s immigration policy towards the Accession 8 countries and essentially saying that Ukip is right.
Nick Clegg may have had the guts to take on Farage in a debate, but Clegg is probably the single most despised politician in Britain, and it’s not much use having him defending immigration when he has been in a government that accepts pretty much all Ukip’s anti-immigrant precepts in practice.
As for Cameron – don’t get me started. Just a few days ago he could be heard telling Jon Snow that he was determined to crack down on ‘benefit tourism.’ When the otherwise less-than-forensic Snow pointed out to him that this was an insignificant phenomenon, Cameron replied ‘but it’s a big concern of the public.’
In other words, Cameron was prepared to crack down on something that doesn’t exist simply to please a public that believes it does – even if it means inflaming anti-foreigner sentiment still further in the process. Such gross irresponsibility is also a form of ‘populism’ and it explains a great deal about Ukip’s success.
The result has been the triumph for far-right politics and shrunken Little England nationalism that we are now witnessing. With this breakthrough, the Big Three parties are likely to pander still further in an attempt to ‘out-tough’ each other on immigration, and the prospect of a Ukip-Conservative coalition government is no longer unimaginable. Admiring celebrities such as the ghastly Jamie Oliver are likely to get on the Ukip bandwagon and more money is likely to flow its way.
All this will legitimize the Ukipisation of British politics still further. The notion that this can be stopped by simply ‘closing our borders’ or ‘managing immigration’ or withdrawing from the EU is a complete chimera. Even if it were possible to limit the numbers of migrants to the tens of thousands, as the Coalition has already failed to do, the Ukips, as Stewart Lee calls them, would not suddenly become more tolerant and inclusive. On the contrary, a Yougov opinion poll found that 51 percent of Ukip voters would like to expatriate legal immigrants, including those who were born here.
That’s the future that the grinning Pied Piper Farage is leading us towards. But there is another Britain that can still be found even in these grim times – one that is generous, open, humane, comfortable with diversity, and willing and able to show solidarity with marginalized groups instead of victimising and persecuting them.
But those of us who want such a society must recognize that these ideas have also taken a kicking today. That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting for them. Political ideas are in the end moral choices that you make because you believe they are right, even if you lose.
And now that we have lost this battle, we need to dust ourselves off and find ways to appeal to the better instincts of the British public rather than the worst, and combat the political disease that threatens to infect us all.