By Tash Shifrin | 7 June 2013
We have had an ugly month of May, drenched by a double wave of racism.
On 3 May the racist Ukip sailed in on a high spring tide, its 25 percent share of the vote in the county council elections making it the new third party in British politics. The party’s triumph followed a campaign based on anti-immigrant scaremongering.
May ended with a huge wave of Islamophobia in the wake of the Woolwich murder – injecting new life into the English Defence League.
The racist and fascist EDL thugs are surfing the wave, their confidence high enough to overcome the organisation’s previous demoralisation and splits. It is a serious threat again. The EDL is dangerous, and its re-emergence must be taken seriously. But the EDL is at least familiar to readers of Socialist Review, many of whom will have been involved in mobilising against it.
The rise of Ukip presents us with something new and different. It is important to look at how it differs from the likes of the BNP and EDL – as well as how the different strands on the racist far-right relate to each other.
This is the first time Ukip has made a major push in local elections, a shift from its traditional focus on the European Parliament. It stood more than 1,700 candidates in the county council elections, taking 25 percent of the vote in the wards where it stood. It now has 147 county councillors – up from just eight in 2009, the last time the same seats were up for election. Ukip has become the second-largest party in the Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk county councils.
The May elections were in the traditionally Tory shires, so the result does not represent the country as a whole. The BBC calculated Ukip’s “projected national share” of the vote at 23 percent – behind Labour on 29 percent and the Tories on 25 percent, but well ahead of the LibDems’ 14 percent. Polling experts Rallins and Thrasher, whose data is used by parliament, gave Ukip a slightly lower projected share of 22 percent. These figures are alarming, as Ukip’s campaign centred on stirring up racism over the supposed threat of “29 million Romanians and Bulgarians” to jobs, homes and public services.
But Ukip is not a fascist party. Unlike fascist organisations, it does not aim to smash workers’ organisations or democratic institutions. Nor does it seek to build a street army. Instead it is a parliamentary party (even though currently it is only represented in council chambers and the European Parliament). Ukip’s origins as a 1993 right wing split from the Conservatives are apparent in economic policies that include a 31 percent flat-rate income tax. At the last general elections Ukip proposed cutting public spending to 1997 levels, with the loss of 2 million jobs. Leader Nigel Farage is a public school educated City broker, treasurer Stuart Wheeler (Eton and Oxford University) is an investment banker who made his fortune with the derivatives trading firm IG Group, and Ukip peer Lord Pearson (another Eton old boy) is an insurance broker.
Europe and the Tory right
Ukip’s hard right Eurosceptic stance means it has pull and influence on the right of the Tories. It represents a wing of British capital whose main interests lie outside Europe. Its rise is accentuating divisions in the Conservative Party, as UKIP lures Tory voters and Eurosceptics among British capitalists. Farage has been courting the bosses, especially in the City, and is making some headway. “Slowly but surely, donors who would have traditionally supported the Tories are now holding talks with us,” he said last month, as a high profile investment fund manager backed the party and a hedge fund chief hosted a Ukip fundraising bash.
But Ukip has become more than a Eurosceptic Tory splinter group. Ironically, the pound-sign patriots have joined a Europe-wide phenomenon: the rise of far right racist populist parties. Across Europe, amid economic crisis and austerity, the racist far right is feeding on the misery to grow, with four types of organisations emerging. These range from hard-core Hitler-style fascists such as Hungary’s Jobbik or the Greek Golden Dawn to the cleaned-up, slick and suited “Eurofascists” of the French Front National. Street fighting groups, such as the EDL and the racist bootboys of Eastern Europe, make up a third element.
Ukip belongs to the fourth strand: populist electoral parties, making a “nativist” anti-foreigner and racist appeal, particularly targeting immigrants and Muslims. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, Italy’s Northern League – with which Ukip sits in the European Parliament – and the Swiss People’s Party fall into this broad category. These parties have differing origins, and – in line with their general nativist bent, favouring the established population over immigrants and opposing “foreign” cultures – their policies vary too. Wilders claims his Islamophobia is in defence of Dutch liberal attitudes to LGBT people. Farage is an Islamophobe who has called for a ban on the burqa – but Ukip is homophobic as well, right in line with the Tory bigots whose foul attitudes were on display during the gay marriage debate.
Ukip has seen the other racist populists rise as austerity bites, and prepared the ground for its own surge with a marked shift from the anti-EU propaganda of previous elections. This time the campaign put the immigrant “threat” to jobs, housing and the NHS front and centre. And a YouGov poll carried out just ahead of the council elections found that 76 percent of those who say they would vote Ukip at a general election would do so to cut immigration – well ahead of wanting to leave the EU (59 percent) and protesting at the main parties (47 percent). Racist scapegoating – alongside a fake anti-establishment appeal to those disenchanted with mainstream politics – has transformed Ukip from a minor party to a major player.
Ukip made its gains in the May elections at the expense of the Tories and LibDems, with both coalition parties haemorrhaging votes and council seats. Ukip did not take a single seat from Labour, which itself gained 291 seats, recovering the number it lost last time the counties went to the polls. In the Rotherham, Eastleigh and South Shields by-elections, where Ukip leapt into second place, the percentage share of the Labour vote held up. (There was a slight dip from 52 percent to 50.5 percent in South Shields but this was more than made up for by a 3 percent vote for an Independent Socialist.)
In South Shields the Tory share of the vote was halved, while the Lib Dems were virtually wiped out, limping home with 1.4 percent of the vote, just ahead of the Monster Raving Loonies. It is likely that Ukip will have picked up votes from some former BNP voters – the fascists were able to field only around 100 candidates. But it is important to note that the sharp decline of the BNP began with their wipeout in Barking and Dagenham in 2010, three years ago. It was anti-fascist campaigning that wrecked the BNP, not Ukip’s later surge.
The limited data available tells us that Ukip voters are much older than average: 48 percent are over 60, compared with 28 percent for all voters. They are also more likely to own their own homes, only half as likely to have gone to university and are poorer than average – although all these findings are likely to be skewed by Ukip’s age profile. Ukip voters are slightly more likely than Labour voters to be in the C2DE social category – which includes manual working class people – but, confusingly, also better-off self-employed groups. This means there will be a substantial number of working class Ukip voters, previously working class Tories, as well as a richer contingent.
The elections did not show a shift to the right across the electorate, with Labour maintaining a good showing in the shires. But among Tory and LibDem voters discontent with the coalition government and the austerity regime is expressed in a shift to racist right wing Ukip, rather than leftwards to Ed Miliband’s uninspiring Labour Party. But the reaction of both Conservatives and Labour to the Ukip surge has been to make concessions to Ukip’s agenda on immigration. This has only boosted Ukip’s standing further – and means that Ukip is able to keep pulling mainstream politics to the right. And Ukip’s rise creates a fertile breeding ground for the EDL, whose leaders endorsed the party ahead of the May elections.
Across Europe the racist far-right is in flux, producing new formations, shifting alliances and a cross-fertilisation of ideas. We can see this fluidity in the recent meeting between Dutch populist racist Wilders and French fascist FN leader Marine Le Pen to discuss a far-right alliance for the 2014 European elections. This breaks new ground for Wilders, who had previously distanced himself from fascist parties. Ukip is, at present, not keen to be associated with fascist organisations and formally bans former EDL and BNP members – although as we have seen, it couldn’t stop a handful of fascists popping up among its electoral candidates. Farage doesn’t mind flirting with hardcore racists though. He says Enoch Powell – whose 1968 “Rivers of blood” speech remains a touchstone for racists and fascists – is his hero. But he sometimes treads carefully to keep just the safe side of respectability.
After Woolwich, amid wall to wall commentary from politicians and the media, and the EDL’s resurgence, there was one noticeable silence. Although Ukip had been setting the political agenda on race, Farage was quiet over Woolwich, perhaps fearing to associate his party with the volatile mood of the EDL. Anti-immigrant racism is at the centre of Ukip’s populist appeal. But Ukip is not all about BNP-style race war – or the EDL’s war between cultures. The fascist groups use these core ideas to cement their cadre. But, like the Tories, Ukip’s core ideology is promoting the interests of business. Its racism is more opportunistic: it uses it to rake in votes and to divert anger away from austerity and the bosses onto immigrants, Muslims or the horrors of “multiculturalism”.
But Ukip ratchets up the level of racism in society and makes the environment an increasingly hospitable one for the fascists. Its rise gives confidence and legitimation to the EDL thugs. Ukip’s primarily anti-immigrant rhetoric feeds a general racist climate that also encourages Islamophobia and racism against black people. And after Woolwich, Islamophobia flowed smoothly into calls to “kick out” the murder suspects, who are black men born in Britain.
While Ukip pumps out warnings of the “threat” from immigration to homes and jobs, the EDL claims it is defending British culture from Islam – and the two ideas meet in the idea of a “Britain for the British” defined ever more narrowly. The danger is not only that Ukip grows and pulls mainstream politics to the right, but that the increased respectability of its racist ideas encourages a revitalised EDL to consolidate and grow too.
There is plenty of work ahead for anti-racists and anti-fascists. We will have to renew the fight against the EDL. But what can we do about Ukip? A good example was shown in Edinburgh last month when anti-racists turned out at short notice to barrack Farage for his racism and homophobia, making it clear he was unwelcome. More such pickets and protests will help show up Ukip’s racism and encourage opposition to it.
As Ukip tries to push onwards, we need to organise anti-Ukip feeling and push back. A new campaign, Stand up to Ukip, is set to be launched soon, by Love Music Hate Racism and One Society Many Cultures backed by Unite Against Fascism. Many anti-racists and trade unionists will have a gut hatred of Ukip and its putrid politics, but these ideas must be won among much wider layers of people. Stand up to Ukip will produce leaflets, badges and a statement that can be used to spread opposition to Ukip and its racist scapegoating, bigotry and anti working class policies.
We need to spread that widely, to ensure as many people as possible are armed with the arguments against the racist lies Ukip calls “common sense”. The campaign should be broad enough to bring together a wide range of people who want to stand up to Ukip, although they will have different political backgrounds (or none) and varying views about immigration controls, the EU and other matters.
Socialists should also be ready to show where the blame for the economic crisis really lies and to argue that all migrants are welcome here. We can’t leave the EDL to rebuild on the streets. But Ukip’s foul politics hover in the air, polluting the general political atmosphere. That means socialists can’t afford to duck hard arguments inside the working class either.
First published in Socialist Review