UKIP’s European surge – lessons for the left

UKIP’s political ‘earthquake’ has happened.

In these latest elections for the European Parliament, this party of no MPs in Parliament, no councils under its control and a seemingly substantial body of weird and not-so-wonderful candidates has secured the largest percentage of the vote and the largest number of MEPs of all the political parties in Britain. 

This is despite a hugely-impressive campaign of sneering contempt from liberal opinion in Britain and latterly the mass media too – the Murdoch papers in particular. To paraphrase (and reduce) one of Bob Dylan's most cutting lyrics, something has been happening here, but some of us have little or no idea what it is, and others want to shut it down.

There is a lot that could be said, so I’m just going to concentrate on what may be a bit different from what others have been saying.

First up is the matter of what we might call ‘existential’ representation.

Look at Doncaster for example, a place represented in Parliament by Ed Miliband and fellow shadow cabinet members Caroline Flint and Rosie Winterton, yet that has just voted for UKIP above Labour in the Europeans.

Compare the European result with local elections which took place in Doncaster on the same day and you see a difference. UKIP did quite well, but when it came to voting for real people to take real jobs, to actually being represented in an administrative function (and in a town that has had serious problems with local administration), the voters just about stuck with Labour. The result in Rotherham, another traditional Labour stronghold where UKIP took 10 out of 21 local seats on offer, shows this isn’t inevitable, but it’s undoubtedly a factor.

In contrast, the European elections are effectively a free vote. The European Parliament has virtually no power and hardly any attention gets paid to it, so we can vote without fear of our choices biting us on the bum in the form of bad decisions from those we elect. This makes it more of an existential choice, of voting for a message and a positioning rather than a potential Prime Minister or a political manifesto that might get implemented in power. UKIP’s simple message about leaving the EU and cutting immigration did the job, enough to win the most votes nationwide, albeit only 27% on a 34% turnout.

Existential aspects have generally been ignored and taken for granted by Labour and other lefty folk, but they provide the glue that keep people on your side even when they haven’t been paying much attention to politics – what you might call ‘tribal’ affiliation. The fact that former Labour voters are switching because they feel UKIP is closest to them in how they feel is a big danger signal for Labour, the latest sign of how we are losing voters we used to rely on.

But other results from across Europe show that this is not a purely British phenomenon. In France, President François Hollande’s socialists won just 14% of the votes cast, compared to 25% for the winning Front National (FN), normally said to be of the ‘far right’, even though its policies are decidedly leftist in many ways. Like UKIP, the FN is not as straightforwardly anti-immigrant and racist as dominant liberal-left opinion would like us to believe, though UKIP has declined to enter a partnership on the basis that it is.

Right across Europe, the pro-European centre left is failing to convince, whether in government or opposition. That appellation ‘pro-European’ perhaps offers a pointer here, for we widely mistake being ‘pro-Europe’ with being pro-EU (one of the serious problems I had with Labour’s MEP candidate selections). Europe is a geographic area, while the EU is an institution, a gigantic, bloated leviathan of bureaucracy that according to UKIP gobbles up £55 million of British taxpayers’ money every day. They are completely different things, and while disliking the institution will annoy quite a few Europeans, these election results show how it is not quite as straightforward as that. Certainly this shouldn't be our only consideration as we consider our future in or out of the EU.

Euroscepticism is on the march all over the Continent, and this has been drawing howls of disappointment and derision, and absurd warnings about how we are about to descend into a pit of fascism.

I see it more as national democracy reasserting itself against the unaccountable leviathan of the EU, a project for ‘ever closer union’ that has gone too far and lost a sense of its reason for being - as indeed so many of our institutions have over time.

On the British left, we’ve unfortunately hardly thought about this for the past thirty years or so, remaining largely supine and adopting a stance of moral superiority towards the crazy-looking, crazy-talking ‘Eurosceptic’ loons from the farther reaches of the Conservative Party and latterly UKIP. Thankfully, now, we have intelligent, independent voices like Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey putting their heads over the parapet, but they are very much in a minority - and from the leading voices we have largely silence.

Euroscepticism – scepticism, rather than outright opposition and outrage – towards the EU seems to me to be just basic common sense.

UKIP’s simple platform also offers us some simple correctives. Britons and other Europeans of all races are concerned about immigration, and they want their politicians to articulate that. Also, as Farage and UKIP have pointed out, in the EU we have relatively little control over our borders, even though we are not part of the Schengen free movement arrangement which France’s FN wants to get out of.

I am actually thankful that UKIP has come along and pressed these issues against the ferocious attacks it has been experiencing, albeit many of them justified for some of the dreadful people it has been attracting in as members and candidates. Within the EU as it is, national government and democracy seems only really possible at the margins. If you cannot control who comes to your country and lives on your land, you have lost control of your destiny.

The danger of Labour still failing to properly grasp this truth is very real. It is telling that someone like Tessa Jowell (one of the most sensible, likeable and competent of Labour’s ‘grandees’, albeit I am no fan of that word) boasted after the local elections that "These results show London to be an open, tolerant and diverse city.”

Multicultural London largely resisted the UKIP surge, and Labour did well here (something I participated in). But Jowell is clearly contrasting London’s voting with the rest of the country’s, and demeaning the latter. If you are living outside London and read Jowell’s words, the feeling of alienation from the capital and its politics may well be accentuated. The existential distance between you and Labour will grow. This is precisely the sort of feeling that Farage, UKIP and the voters who have gone to them have been feeding on – the distance between ‘ordinary’ people and a self-satisfied elite in a city that has become in many ways markedly different to most of the rest of Britain.

We blame the voters at our peril.


  1. P.S. A further reflection on Tessa Jowell's comment: "open, tolerant and diverse". These might be called values, but they are more like pseudo-values.

    * 'Open' - to what? Everything?
    * 'Tolerant' - that means letting things go which you don't like, so it's more like an anti-value;
    * 'Diverse' - this is a mathematical conception, a value as a number. If you take it as an ultimate good in itself, then you should really be going to non-diverse places and demanding they become more diverse - which in itself would not be respecting diversity. So it doesn't work as a value.

  2. Interesting blog. What is missing from the debate on immigration is calmness and clarity. Personally, I think that immigration is a great thing that has enriched our country both economically and culturally over the years but it would be foolish to deny that immigration has brought challenges. The Left should be trying to deal with those challenges whilst praising the positive benefits of managed migration. One challenge is that of 'fairness'. Many white working class people are on the social housing waiting list yet they feel that there are newcomers who have just joined their community and come at the top of the waiting list because of "need". Perhaps rather than trying to have a race to the bottom, we should re-establish the contributory principle in regards to benefits and social housing.
    We should also focus on integration and citizenship. Some communities have a negative experience of immigration because of lack of integration for eg. Sheffield. The challenge for the Left should be how we can ensure that immigrants respect our way of life and integrate in our country (worth bearing in mind that the majority of them do). Robin Wales' work in Newham is something that the Left should be promoting: scrap translation services and fund English lessons for newcomers, scrap single identity funding and fund citizenship lessons. The Left should reject the immigration cap and net migration target because they are unworkable policies that threaten our competitiveness as a country and tells the world that "Britain is closed for business". What we should do instead is to look at earned citizenship, a points system for long-term settlement or a green card system. People should meet certain criteria before they have a right to settle in the UK - that would deal with some of the concerns that people have.
    Also, people want to know that their borders are properly managed and that governments will be able to deal with pressure points on services and housing. That is why the Left should be calling for a Migration Impact Fund, funded from a levy that migrants pay on top of their visa fee. Also, there should be 8,000 new immigration officers to police our borders, deal with the immigration backlog and to clamp down on illegal immigration.
    Another thing is skills. It is true that immigration has had a negative impact on the wages of the poorest ten percent of workers and it is right that Labour tackles unscrupulous employers who use immigration to undercut wages. However, we would be deluding ourselves if we think that employers just want foreign labour because they are cheaper - it is also because they have skills. The reality is that migrants tend to have more skills, more qualifications and a better work ethic than many white working class Brits so employers. Therefore, there needs to be a strong focus on skills and vocational training in order to close skills shortages in this and raise the living standards of lowest paid. That would also improve Britain's competitiveness and reduce immigration because employers would have access to skills that they need in the UK rather than having to look abroad. There also needs to be tough welfare reform so that British people take work that are offered to them or face losing their benefits. We cannot complain about 'foreign workers taking British jobs' when many of our people are refusing to do the so-called 'immigrant jobs'.
    Finally, we must resist the urge to out-Ukip Ukip and make silly apologies in rightwing newspapers. We need a serious, calm and pragmatic policy to confront the challenges that immigration can bring.

    1. Excellent and interesting comments Renie, with some likewise excellent suggestions. I'm especially interested to read about what they've been doing in Newham - I've seen on facebook from a friend who's just been elected there that Labour is positing itself there as not divisive unlike Tower Hamlets so is good to see a bit of detail.

      You're right about a 'net migration' cap being silly, but I think we should realistically be looking at a gross cap - though you can only do that by restricting free movement from the EU. In my view, that is unavoidable - hardly anyone expected the levels of migration we have seen and it could get much more pronounced as globalisation continues.


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