Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Revolt on the Right" - the story of UKIP. A review.

"Revolt on the Right - Explaining support for the radical right in Britain" by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin 

 When I revealed on Twitter that I had bought a copy of "Revolt on the Right" Patrick O'Flynn, UKIP's "Director of Communications" and previously the Political Correspondent of the right wing and populist Daily Express told me to "read it" as I might "learn something". It was a classic line from Mr O'Flynn with whom I have crossed swords amicably (mostly) in the past. Whether he thought I had bought the book to look good on my bookshelves I don't know (unlikely as it has a bright photograph of Nigel Farage pint and fag in hand on the cover). Anyway I bought it to read it and I have now done so. And, yes, I did indeed learn something from this outstandingly good book about modern British politics. 

"Revolt on the Right" is, of course, about the United Kingdom Independence Party - but it is a great deal more than this. This is because it places UKIP's rise firmly in the context of not just the political world of the UK but our social circumstances as well. It also places UKIP in Britain alongside the new Right of Centre and often "insurgent" parties elsewhere in Europe as well. This is a book for political anoraks, like me, but it is as I say, much more. This is for three reasons. First the book is exceptionally well written - it is immensely readable and very well structured. Secondly it is extremely well researched - there is quantitative and qualitative support for every statement and assertion. Thirdly it is a cracking good story! The rise and rise of UKIP does matter - and for reasons that go beyond Party politics as well, of course, for the established political Parties. 

Back in the 1980s I was an early recruit of the Social Democratic Party - the SDP. It is the only political party I have ever joined and I am proud of having been a member. This is because I strongly still associate myself with the values and policies of the SDP. The SDP story is told in "Revolt on the Right" because it is the only comparable example of a fourth party being successful - albeit briefly. It is worth dwelling on the SDP for a moment because in 1983, in alliance with the Liberals, they secured 25.4% of the UK vote - and yet just 3.5% of the seats (23). It was scandalous. In that year Mrs Thatcher garnered 42.4 % of the popular vote but 61.1% of the seats in the House of Commons. That is the First Past the Post political system that distorts - I would say invalidates - much of our politics. In the 2015 General Election the same rules will apply and the authors confirm that the chances of UKIP securing any seats are slim. 

The UK’s iniquitous voting system contributes to the disillusionment with conventional politics that emerges as one of the three main reasons for UKIP's rise. There is a "populist backlash against the established political class" among UKIP voters. It is "None of the above" politics at its most raw. "Revolt on the Right" documents what is elsewhere often referred to as contempt for "LibLabCon" - the idea that all three main parties are the same led by the same Oxbridge educated elite who all cluster around broadly the same political imperatives. As the authors put it both Labour under Blair and the Conservatives under Cameron tried to build "election winning coalitions in a middle class society" and this created a class of "left behind" voters (or often non-voters). This has become the recruiting ground for UKIP, as it was for the British National Party (BNP) before. In “Revolt on the Right” the authors quote David Aaronovitch who said that both parties attract “ordinary” people who feel “betrayed by the political class”. More specifically they are the “older, less skilled and less well educated working-class voters”. This analysis is crucial and it may come as a surprise to those who see UKIP’s potential support as being among Eurosceptic Conservatives who are disenchanted with David Cameron. Certainly some UKIP voters are middle-class defectors from the Tories – but the vast majority are from the “left behind” blue collar population.

That UKIP has replaced the BNP as the right wing Party of protest is clear from the authors’ analysis. As recently as the 2010 local elections the BNP secured nearly 350,000 votes to UKIP’s 226,000. By 2013 UKIP had risen to an astonishing 1.14 million while the BNP had fallen to a derisory 13,000. The jibe that UKIP’s leaders are the “BNP in blazers” is unfair and untrue. But a significant proportion of their recent voter support in elections clearly does come from those who voted for the BNP in the past – perhaps holding their noses as they did it! What are these voters voting for and to what extent is UKIP a Party whose appeal is that it allows a respectable protest vote to be made without there being a charge of racism – as of course there had been with the BNP? And to what extent are UKIP’s policies important as opposed to their status as a repository for votes against the liberal, metropolitan elite of the three main parties?

The authors analyse UKIP’s policies as really only being in two areas – Europe and immigration. True there are some other totemic right of centre policies thrown into the mix, including a social conservatism (e.g. against Gay marriage) which will attract older Tory defectors. But in essence UKIP is about two things – withdrawal from the European Union and an end to immigration. Over recent times these positions have become inextricably linked as the doors have been opened to EU citizens from countries like Bulgaria and Romania – something that UKIP has successfully exploited among its target group. The unease that many in the “left behind” group feel about immigration and the directly linked opposition to the EU is the driver of UKIP’s success. You can regard UKIP as being like a three-legged stool with the legs being (1) Opposition to the current political class (2) Opposition to the European Union and (3) Opposition to immigration. Take one of these legs away and the stool falls over. Interlink them, as UKIP has increasingly realised it needs to do, and you have a sturdy construct that it’s hard to push over! 

What UKIP is against is clear. What it is for is another matter. And the same applies to its supporters and prospective voters. The social group that UKIP aims at used to be that which “Old Labour” could rely upon. Here an appeal that cites immigrants and the devilry of the EU as being the causes of unemployment, housing problems and difficulties with school places will be successful. Where Old Labour delivered public sector jobs, council housing and good non selective education the new political class of any established Party fails to do this – in the minds of the “left behind”. Making the EU and immigrants and the Oxbridge educated political elite responsible for the current malaise goes beyond scapegoating, though it certainly is that. It gives a concerted focus which although it has been present in the appeal of Far Right parties across Europe has previously been absent in Britain. The rise of UKIP has changed that. The BNP did the same but was clearly lacking totally in respectability. Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin are miles apart, but many of their erstwhile and current supporters are the same.

"Revolt on the Right” tells how good luck (e.g. the formation of the Coalition) and sometimes smart judgment has given UKIP its current strong position. It does not presume to analyse the intellectual logic of UKIP’s main policy positions. Those of us who oppose UKIP completely – this reviewer cannot think of one UKIP position with which he agrees – need to do more than just be contemptuous of what we may see as bigotry and prejudice. The case for Europe and the case for the benefits of past immigration are strong, but they need to be put far better. The case for believing in the inherent decency of politicians like David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg is also strong – but the more they distance themselves from the people and the more elitist they seem the more difficult it is to make. I would offer one reason why UKIP despite its recent successes lacks real credibility as a political movement that will endure. Unlike the SDP UKIP has attracted no politician defectors from any other political Party – a few minor characters aside. There are, I would guess, at least twenty or thirty Conservative MPs whose views are more in line with UKIP than they are with Cameron’s Conservatives. Not one of them has done what a similar number of Labour MPs once did and move to a new Party. This curiosity is not discussed in Ford and Goodwin’s book at all and I wonder why. But if in the run up to the 2015 election a few Tory MPs do defect then that election could be very interesting indeed! If not then we can expect a UKIP vote of 15% - 20% to deliver no MPs at all (Farage aside if he chooses the right constituency). The palpable injustice of that might just cause a revolt for electoral reform – and that really could change the face of British politics!


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