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Europe’s, and Britain’s, populist moment

30 May 2014

The electoral victory of UKIP, an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe party, redraws Britain’s political map, says David Hayes


Booming certitudes: UKIP leader Nigel Farage. © European Union 2012–European Parliament

Booming certitudes: UKIP leader Nigel Farage. © European Union 2012–European Parliament

Can there be elections without democracy? The notion acquired currency in this century’s first decade, as authoritarians old and new learned to wear the plumage of freedom while trampling the body. It is a measure of Europe’s troubled condition that a charge once aimed at Egypt or Azerbaijan has now come home, and is voiced not just at the continent’s political extremes but by many of its alienated voters.

The European parliamentary elections on 22–25 May, where overall support for an assortment of populist and xenophobic groups was around 30 per cent, reveal the hard truth. For once, Britain – routinely an awkward partner in the European Union – belongs in the mainstream, as its United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, came top of the national poll and sent the political class and media into a tailspin.

Of the union’s three main institutions – the quasi-executive commission, the intergovernmental council, and the parliament – only the parliament is directly elected. Its now 751 members, or MEPs, are chosen every five years by voters in all the European Union’s now twenty-eight member states, using a variety of proportional systems.

In principle, the near-simultaneous vote by 380 million citizens – the second largest poll in the world after India’s – can be seen as a great expression of democracy. In practice, Europe’s anaemic economic condition and overriding sense of political drift made it a joyless event. All the forms of democracy were observed, but the results confirm how far discontent about its substance has spread during the post-2009 downturn. The circumstances have been used for toxic purposes in the semi-insurrectionary rhetoric of movements that target immigrants, elites, globalisation, or the European Union itself, to offer some form of purgative – and always easy – solution.

Europe’s long malaise has been especially draining in the southern eurozone countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy) and also in Ireland. The costs of austerity, with unemployment the heaviest, have corroded voters’ trust in the European Union and their national leaders alike, and drawn many to the fringes to vent frustration. The groups that have benefited in these elections include France’s Front National and Denmark’s People’s Party, far-right parties undergoing a makeover; Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn, both viscerally racist; Austria’s Freedom Party and Italy’s Lega Nord, nativist or regionalist movements with a xenophobic tinge; Ireland’s Sinn Féin, strategic nationalists; Italy’s Five Star and Spain’s Podemos, upstart networks led by charismatic activists.

These divergent forces were doubtless fuelled as much by a widespread “anti-politics” mood as by any deep ideological shift in their direction, and the low turnout (averaging 43 per cent) also helped. Nonetheless, their endorsement by so many voters is a grave warning to Europe’s enfeebled political centre. When the partisans of the “European project” lack conviction and coherence, and its antagonists are the ones full of passionate intensity, the centre must move if it is to hold. A post-election summit in Brussels on 27 May at least suggested that the European Union’s national leaders were aware of the scale of the challenge.

Britain’s part in the European elections contributed a political melodrama of its own. The UK Independence Party won 27 per cent of the votes, more than the Labour opposition (25.4 per cent) and the governing Conservatives (23.9 per cent) and Liberal Democrats (6.9 per cent), who thus fell behind the Greens (7.9 per cent). Its triumph earned UKIP twenty-four of Britain’s seventy-three seats in the European parliament, an increase of eleven on its previous total.

The fact that the outcome had been signalled repeatedly by pollsters limited the psychological impact if not the headlines. And British voters tend to have a cussed mood towards European elections, a sense that there is little at stake combining with a desire to give the main parties a therapeutic kick. For all that, it was a stunning breakthrough for a party with so far not a single seat in the House of Commons; a radical one, in that UKIP seeks to lead a conservative counter-revolution; and historic, as the first election since December 1910 when neither Tories nor Labour won most seats.

What is UKIP? A short answer is that it is a right-wing British nationalist party, promoting a tale of national decline and elite betrayal, dedicated to exit from the European Union and minimum immigration, more traditionalist than libertarian, and formally non-racist, though in practice inescapably colluding in racist prejudices and tropes (what might be called “para-racism”).

An insider’s answer is that UKIP is a party of “common sense solutions,” aiming to combat “uncontrolled immigration” and a “ruling elite” in thrall to “Brussels diktats” and thus “return power to the UK.” Its notably slender commitments – a policy portfolio is awaited – include “binding local and national referenda on major issues,” cuts to foreign aid and green initiatives, and a more punitive stance on crime.

A historical answer would be that UKIP was founded in 1993 as a successor to the Anti-Federalist League, created by the LSE historian Alan Sked to campaign against the Maastricht treaty, a cornerstone of Europe’s single market. Sked himself broke with the party in 1999 following a decision that its members would take seats in the European parliament if elected; he has long denounced the party as racist and open to former far-rightists. UKIP won three European seats (on 6.9 per cent of the vote) in 1999; twelve seats in 2004 (16.1 per cent, beating the LibDems to third place); and thirteen seats in 2009 (16.6 per cent, taking second place above Labour). This progress in Europe contrasts with the party’s failure in domestic elections, where it has stood hundreds of candidates in each election since 1997 yet has peaked, so far, at just 3.1 per cent, in 2010.

A tempting answer to that simple question, however, is that UKIP is the Cheshire cat grin and hearty laugh of Nigel Farage – so much is the party identified with the visage of its perennially ebullient leader, a former stock-market trader who has represented UKIP in the European parliament since 1999 and led it (with one short break) since 2006. Farage’s persona – with its booming certitudes, unembarrassable air, zippy harangues delivered at a moment’s notice, and much-hyped fondness for a pint in the pub with mates – is widely seen as welcome relief from the identikit image of the contemporary politician, a contrast the media is glad to promote. Indeed, the “blokish” Farage is often aligned with the mayor of London, the carefully disordered Boris Johnson, their popularity explained in terms of their ability to project an “authenticity” so lacking elsewhere.

Farage has now led his party to the highest point of its twenty-year existence. It is a substantial achievement, which brings with it a new level of test. Farage’s profile and outsiderish status have to a degree insulated him from the vigilant attention those standard-issue politicians tend to receive, though there was more serious coverage of his views and attitudes during the European campaign. Likewise, when UKIP was very much a fringe group there was little interest in its swirling internal rivalries and feuds, or concern about its lack of detailed policies. That will now change.

An effort is being made to professionalise its operation, helped by the vast resources of Paul Sykes, a Yorkshire property tycoon and veteran backer of anti-European causes, who has funded the party since 2004. The emergence of fluent subordinates – such as Farage’s deputy Paul Nuttall, and Diane James, both now MEPs – is a further step forward. Membership has grown, reportedly to 38,000. The transition from one-man band to modern party, however, will be hard, not least as UKIP’s very success will accentuate the tension between competing impulses to insurgency (reflected in its rhetoric’s fatal lack of restraint) and to respectability.

An intense public debate is now under way about the meaning and implications of the European result. Does UKIP’s success presage a decisive shift to a new four-party system, with the general election in May 2015 confirming that “the UKIP fox is in the Westminster henhouse” (in Nigel Farage’s clever, and revealing, phrase)? How does it variously damage the three main parties, and how should they respond: by fighting on UKIP’s terrain, seeking to defuse its appeal, addressing its voters while targeting the party? More generally, what impact will UKIP’s advance have on Britain’s membership of the European Union, as the debate over possible exit continues to divide the right and (more quietly) the left?

A slate of political scientists is now on the case, seeking clues in the fine grain of the European election – and of the local elections in parts of England, also held on 22 May. UKIP’s performance in the latter was more qualified: a calculation of “projected national share” awarded the party 17 per cent of the vote, impressive enough but down from 23 per cent in 2013. In a disastrous night for the Liberal Democrats – a prelude to the European vote, when they lost ten of their eleven MEPs – UKIP took votes in both Labour and Tory strongholds as it saw 163 councillors elected; but its worse showing, in multicultural London, was met both by celebration of the city’s empathetic diversity and deprecation of London’s self-righteousness vis-à-vis the country beyond.

On top of that, the turnout in the European elections, 34 per cent, means fewer than one in twelve citizens actually cast their vote for UKIP, while a survey indicates that half these voters intend to switch in the 2015 general election. Even this reduced number would be considerable for a fourth party, but under Britain’s first-past-the-post system far less rewarding in seats than under the proportional one used in the European poll. The relatively even spread of UKIP voters does not serve its chances of constituency success. The answer, as experience has taught the minority LibDems in particular, is to build and cultivate support in particular areas: concentrating, not diluting, resources to optimise the seat-to-vote ratio (and perhaps campaigning for electoral reform too).

Nigel Farage’s quip about the Westminster henhouse makes more sense in this light – for behind its oddness (after all, UKIP’s European success sent no one to Westminster) is a signal of his awareness both that his real battle is at home and that his 2015 strategy will be to target vulnerable Tory and Labour seats. At the same time, the accumulation of votes elsewhere has a singular upside for UKIP beyond matters of legitimacy and morale, for it bolsters its claim to be truly UK-wide – exemplified in the European election, when the party kept its seat in Wales and won one in Scotland. The Scottish victory was sweet, and bitter, since Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party, or SNP, had counted on a UKIP defeat to vindicate its claim that such a reactionary party had “no place” in a progressive Scotland heading for independence. Ten per cent of Scots voters didn’t get the message. If enough of their compatriots go on to vote “yes” on 18 September, however, then all bets are off in all directions.

All this means that UKIP’s surge is still open-ended, forcing the other main parties into their own jittery computation of its medium-term impact. The Conservatives are elevating a 5 June by-election in the east midlands town of Newark, where they have a big majority, to the status of an epic siege of the kind withstood by the royalists there during the English civil war of the 1640s: holding on, and turning back the UKIP horde, is everything. Beyond that, David Cameron’s party needs to reclaim a big proportion of UKIP supporters if it is to win or remain the largest party in 2015, but bending too far in their direction would alienate moderate Tories. It’s a delicate balance, of the kind despised by schematic Eurosceptic MPs and MEPs who compare their version of the two parties’ aims, tally their votes, and call for a pact. That course would surrender the prime minister’s authority and leverage in an instant, replacing them with the nightmare of having Nigel Farage – who in any case loathes him – as an ally.

The UKIP challenge is also to Labour, for its worldview barks to the experiences and concerns of some of Labour’s supporters – principally older, male, working-class ones living in less prosperous towns. Many of the latter, across parts of eastern England in the main, have been adjusting to large-scale immigration following the accession of twelve states to the European Union in 2004 and 2007, nine of them from the ex-Soviet bloc. This influx has been a significant moment in English social history, and has reassembled communities and livelihoods across the land. Whatever political consequences flow from it are of concern to Labour, as the party closest to the areas of greatest change. It is also true, however, that UKIP has won votes in some Labour constituencies, for example in England’s northeast, where immigration is very low.

This is just one example of how UKIP’s wave obliges Labour to face difficult choices, of tone as well as policy, that the top of the party has preferred to ignore – though not the Blue Labour current, rediscovering place, community and belonging, nor the get-with-globalisation one, prioritising skills, work and openness. This dilemma now fuses with rising concerns about the party’s strategy, direction, policies and leadership that have lain dormant under Ed Miliband’s insular leadership-by-seminar. The evidence of UKIP’s capacity to lure Labour folk into its cave now touches Labour’s nerve-ends at the very time the party is consumed by doubts about its prospects in 2015.

Labour cannot pander to the prejudice and ignorance that often despoils anti-immigration or anti-EU arguments, but nor can it lecture or condescend to people living in tough circumstances which they may associate with either phenomenon. It must, as the current formula has it, “address their concerns” without falling into either trap. That is the stuff of politics and leadership, and entails distinguishing between those matters (usually economic or social) definable and treatable in policy terms and those (usually cultural or psychological) less so, not so quickly, or not at all. Some of the cries that UKIP seeks to voice and exploit – such as the all-purpose plaint of angry nostalgics, “we want our country back!” – come into the latter category.

The fallout of the European elections also features a Liberal Democrat shambles. The party’s humiliation leaves it hugging its role in government as the only thing between it and an existential crisis. Its querulous leader Nick Clegg – also deputy prime minister, though no one can discover what he actually does beyond dispensing platitudes and tending to his office – is damaged beyond repair. Clegg’s woeful performance in two televised debates with Nigel Farage on Britain and Europe, which he had initiated, recalled the jibe hurled in 1992 by the Labour leader John Smith at the hapless prime minister John Major: “the man with the non-Midas touch.”

The LibDems’ problems and UKIP’s progress are linked because the former lost its cherished status as the party of protest the instant it entered coalition in 2010. This left a gap in the market that UKIP has been happy to fill. But UKIP has now been able to take the parties’ successive function as repository of generalised discontent to a much higher level, fusing it with a powerful, polarising story of what is wrong with Britain and how to fix it. The viability of UKIP’s effort to flatten a discredited old form of politics, along the way mobilising the interests and emotions of a forgotten people, is widely discussed.

Matthew Goodwin, co-author (with Robert Ford) of the most thorough study of the party to date – Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain – is among those convinced that the “electoral earthquake” of 2014 has “demolished” views that belittle UKIP and its challenge to both Conservative and Labour parties:

Those who continue to argue that UKIP is little more than a flash in the pan underestimate the depths of anger among financially struggling, blue-collar and left-behind voters who are its core electorate. These voters have long felt intensely anxious over an array of perceived threats to their identity, values and way of life; from migrants and unelected Eurocrats in Brussels, to distant elites in Westminster. Never before have these working-class voters felt so disconnected from our politics, and so ready for a radical alternative. Ignored for years by a cosmopolitan, educated and progressive elite, they took a collective decision in the face of ridicule and condescension to turn out in force. They have now rejected Britain’s entire political class.

This feels overstated. But then UKIP tends to do that to people. (The histrionic Tory populist Peter Oborne, never knowingly undersold, writes of Nigel Farage in the Spectator: “Single-handedly he has restored passion, genuine debate and meaning to politics. Single-handedly he has reinvented British democracy.”) The course of British politics over the year to the 2015 election – starting with that by-election in Newark – will sift reality from hyperbole.

There is no inevitability about UKIP’s further rise. Again, the rival parties’ political reaction to it will be vital in shaping events, as will the state of the economy. Two other factors may very well come into play. First, many people in areas targeted by UKIP, including yje relatively poor and hard-pressed, are antagonistic to the party, even repelled by aspects of it. They, too, cannot be written out of the larger story. Second, success exposes a party to greater scrutiny of its ideas and proposals. In UKIP’s case the process will be painful.

More broadly, the contests over the European Union’s future, and Britain’s place in it, are about to get real. Insofar as that reflects the ballot-box jolt delivered by citizens to governments, these elections may in the end prove to have served democracy well. •

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Swastikas long gone: supporters of Sweden Democrats during a rally in July this year. Johan Wessman/News Øresund (CC BY 3.0)

Swastikas long gone: supporters of Sweden Democrats during a rally in July this year. Johan Wessman/News Øresund (CC BY 3.0)