The decline of the BNP has given UKIP the chance to fill the yawning gap that exists in working class political representation. By way of contrast, the current incarnations of the left are failing, yet again, to make any impression. This is repeating the pattern of recent decades, where the right have consistently out-thought the left in terms of strategy. The ongoing capitalist crisis offers real opportunities for our side, but it also presents great dangers. If the left continues to shirk its responsibility by failing to fully engage with the working class, it leaves the path clear for the continued growth of right-wing nationalism.
The recent Eastleigh by-election, where UKIP came in second less than two thousand votes behind the incumbent Lib Dems, has confirmed UKIP’s rise to political prominence in the UK. UKIP have long been a force at European level, but this has largely been due to their being a single-issue, anti-Europe protest vehicle. However, they are now making an impact at the ground level of British politics. Where not so long ago UKIP had fewer councillors than the BNP (and indeed, the IWCA), in the local elections of May 2012 UKIP were able to field nearly 700 candidates nationwide (compared to the BNP’s 130) and secured 13% of all votes cast, up from 8% in 2011. In the upcoming local elections in May, they will be standing 1,700 candidates in three-quarters of the available seats, as many as the Lib-Dems and only 500 behind the Tories. The website politicalbetting.com states that ‘For UKIP to have the nationwide organisation capable of putting up candidates in three quarters of the seats is a massive achievement’.
More significantly, it is not just in middle England where UKIP are breaking through, for their success in Eastleigh follows on from the second places they attained in the Middlesbrough and Rotherham by-elections in November last year, and Barnsley in March 2011, all Labour strongholds where UKIP comprehensively beat out the BNP. What explains this?
It is no coincidence that the rise of UKIP has followed on the heels of the decline of the BNP. In 2008 the BNP held 55 local and district councillors (link) and scored almost 70,000 votes in the London mayoral election, and in 2009 they won two MEPs in European elections where they netted a million votes nationwide. This earned Nick Griffin a spot on Question Time in November 2009, and the BNP then went on to poll over 500,000 votes in the 2010 general election. From this pinnacle, the BNP are now down to three elected councillors and their vote in the 2012 London mayoral election fell to below 30,000. In contrast to UKIP, the BNP are only standing 100 candidates in the coming local elections.
At the time of the Question Time appearance the BNP appeared all set to mount a profound challenge to the political establishment, but all their forward momentum has been lost and they have gone markedly backwards, and their drop-off in electoral success has been matched by public in-fighting, splits and financial troubles. Why has this happened? For one, the political establishment – all three major parties, plus satellites such as Hope Not Hate – mobilised as one in response to the threat they perceived from the BNP. Resources were poured into key battleground areas (such as Barking and Dagenham), and almost certainly there was an element of state infiltration of the organisation, which helped to sow instability. This is how the political centre responds to any threat to its established order: on a lower level, the IWCA has been subject to similar treatment (link). The concern of Hope Not Hate isn’t to defend the working class from fascism, it is to defend the political centre from any ‘radical’ threat. For a time, the BNP benefitted from the ‘outlaw’ status conveyed upon them as the political establishment united against them, but eventually the weight of resources lined up against them began to tell.
Another aspect is the lack of political experience and capital within the BNP. Up until 1994 their priority had been fighting a costly and ultimately losing street war. It was only at the turn of the century that they fully committed to the electoral route, and they didn’t win their first councillor until 2002. They then reaped great rewards extremely quickly, perhaps too quickly: having reached the heights by the end of the decade, they did not have the know-how or the experience to train on. They had not developed the wealth of experience and personnel that, for example, the FN in France has over a period of more than thirty years. Bluntly put, the BNP do not have the resources, capability or know-how to fully capitalise on the opportunities available to them (again, the IWCA faces something not dissimilar, particularly where resources are concerned). Finally, a large factor in the BNP’s vertiginous growth was falling for the temptation of spending money they didn’t have, resulting in the straitened financial position they now find themselves in.
UKIP hoovering up the BNP vote
However, just because the BNP have imploded doesn’t mean that the reasons behind their success have disappeared or that their vote has gone away. As the IWCA put it after last year’s French presidential elections: ‘despite these setbacks, the underlying conditions which facilitated the BNP’s rise are still there: disillusionment with the neo-liberal centre and a Labour party that has turned its back on the working class, producing a political vacuum. There is no reason to assume that the BNP is permanently impaired or cannot learn their lessons; but even if that were so, the opportunity remains for some other right-wing formation to fill the vacuum (it is notable that UKIP did well at the recent local elections, a new phenomenon for them)’ (link).
And so it is coming to pass. According to research conducted by Rob Ford of the University of Manchester, many UKIP loyalists ‘come from working class, Labour leaning backgrounds, and are deeply hostile to all the establishment parties… UKIP supporters’ views of all three parties’ leaders are strongly and persistently negative, and they are more likely to express alienation from politics and dissatisfaction with democracy… UKIP’s strongest support often comes from older working class voters, who often have traditional left wing loyalties’ (link).
It is something of a surprise that it is UKIP who are hoovering up the vote that previously went to the BNP: they have never previously expressed any interest in orientating toward the working class, and it would be instructive to know who or what pushed them in that direction (it is well known that it was Tony Lecomber and Eddie Butler, with Nick Griffin more in the role of beneficiary, who engineered that strategic shift initially within the BNP). Furthermore, UKIP have the distinct strategic advantage in that they have had a chance to observe the BNP ‘dry run’. They have had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and where to tweak the message as appropriate.
At the UKIP spring conference, their leader Nigel Farage began his keynote speech by attacking increased EU immigration on the grounds that it would lead to ‘massive over-supply in the unskilled labour market in this country at a time when we have a million young people out of work’, a clear populist move. Already they have made the ever-opportunist Lib Dems perform an about-turn on immigration, as well as forcing the Tories into pledging a referendum on EU membership. They appear to be better funded than the BNP, and their less toxic brand makes it easier to draw experienced operators away from the Tory party (link).
Another clear, and extremely instructive, example of UKIP’s new orientation, and the success it is bringing them in working class areas, can be seen in the ward of Gooshays in Havering, on the north-east edge of London. In 2002, the IWCA took just shy of 2,500 votes across the three seats in the ward, totalling 23% of the vote. When the local IWCA pilot scheme fell away, the BNP moved in and won the ward in 2006. The BNP have subsequently fallen away, and at the end of March the ward went not back to Labour, but to UKIP.
However, if UKIP’s success has derived from ‘borrowing’ the vote nurtured by the BNP, it means that if they are to maintain their position as the ‘radical’ alternative to the mainstream, they can never go back to their previous position as a middle-class, single issue protest party. If their current trajectory continues, then at some point their will on this matter will be tested: if they pose a genuine threat to the ‘old gang’ of establishment parties as the BNP did, UKIP too will find themselves under the same pressures the BNP faced. There was no doubt that the BNP were and are fascist ‘true believers’: it remains to be seen if UKIP are anything more than opportunists. If they are insufficiently firm and radical in orientation, they remain vulnerable to their ‘legitimised’ vote returning ‘home’ at some point. Having leap-frogged the BNP, UKIP are currently seen as Britain’s main anti-immigrant party: if polls are to believed they are standing at 17 per cent nationally, which puts them on par with other major far-right parties in Europe. Suddenly, it really is game on.
The slow fix
So if UKIP are partially ‘filling the vacuum’ (link) in working class political representation that up until a couple of years ago was being gradually filled by the BNP it begs the question: after 13 years of New Labour in power where they left no-one in any doubt as to their true colours (as former Labour minister Frank Field has recently remarked: ‘In my lifetime, we’ve moved from a Labour Party which was working class-dominated. Some trendy London middle class went along with it but [were] subjected, at least publicly, to the moral economy of the working class. We’ve moved to a stage where what was that minority is in a governing position, which imposes upon the working class its moral economy… there is a real crisis of representation.’); and five years into a renewed crisis of Western capitalism, why is the political vacuum among the working class being filled by parties of the radical right, not the left?
It was illuminating that in the Eastleigh by-election, alongside the strong showing of UKIP, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition received 62 votes. TUSC has the backing of the RMT and PCS unions, and left-wing organisations such as the SWP and the Socialist Party. With this kind of backing it is sufficiently resourced to make an impact. In addition to the 62 votes picked up in Eastleigh, in the Middlesbrough and Rotherham by-elections (where UKIP came in second) TUSC polled less than 2% of the vote. These are working class, Labour strongholds yet it is UKIP, not TUSC, who are challenging Labour. If TUSC can’t break through here, where can they break through? Why is it that UKIP are able to break through in these areas but TUSC cannot?
As its make-up suggests, TUSC’s orientation is toward the trade union movement and the Trotskyist left. However, trade unionism in the UK is now much emasculated, with the bulk of its membership and influence confined to public sector and/or white collar workers, and its concerns largely sectional. TUSC, then, represents a continuation of usual left-wing practice: long on megaphone sloganeering, short on addressing working class concerns or even any practical engagement with the extant working class itself. The 62 votes in Eastleigh (and the results they have gained elsewhere) stands in rather stark contrast to the results the IWCA has consistently been able to garner with far fewer resources, not to mention the results that the BNP and now UKIP have demonstrated they are able to gain in working class areas.
The IWCA is of the left, the BNP and UKIP are of the right, but what all three share is an awareness of orientating toward the working class, and of the necessity of addressing day-to-day working class concerns. There is a clear pattern: a direct strategic orientation first and foremost to the working class where they live – and not just where they work, and not just those in unionised occupations – bears fruit. It is a simple, straightforward strategic insight, yet it has eluded what is left of the left outside the Labour party. The failure of the left to grasp this simple lesson is allowing UKIP a free run to swallow up the vote the BNP previously broke away from Labour. UKIP are filling the vacuum because they are now the only ones who are trying, in any realistic sense, to fill it.
In particular, they are being allowed to lead the debate on immigration and frame the matter purely in nationalist, reactionary terms, with no countervailing perspective framing the matter in terms of class. TUSC’s manifesto does not mention immigration, it merely states ‘Defend the right to asylum’ (link). Prior to the onset of the economic crisis, the attitude of the liberal left was that any failure to support unlimited immigration was xenophobic and racist: it seems that even TUSC has realised this position is no longer tenable, but rather than address the issue in class terms they don’t address it at all.
By contrast, the IWCA has attempted to grasp the nettle, stating ‘UK plc wants a certain level of “quality and controlled immigration”, not because it is benevolent or kind hearted, but because this dampens wages down and keeps the working class insecure through the creation of what can only be described as a reserve army of labour: immigration is being used as a weapon of class warfare. The importation of skilled labour from overseas also represents a free gift to capital: why spend time and money investing in British workers when you can simply steal much needed skilled labour from poorer countries instead?’ (link, see also link, link and link). Such an approach could negate and undercut the supposedly pro-working class credentials of UKIP, forcing them to choose between their populist position on the one hand and their pro-business support on the other. When put to the test, it is fairly transparent which way UKIP would jump.
Both the neo-liberal right and the nationalist right over recent decades have dramatically out-thought the left in terms of political strategy. They have identified tactics, narratives and constituencies, while the left has succeeded in alienating its core constituency of the working class. Even a glib mainstream pundit such as the Independent’s Owen Jones has been compelled to concede that ‘the right have been winning the intellectual argument for over 30 years… the left has been forced into an entirely defensive posture. “Stop privatisation”, “defend our NHS”, “stop the cuts”, “save comprehensive education”; stop the world, I want to get off. Contrast this with the booming right-wing intelligentsia, injecting the seemingly impossible into the mainstream, pushing the political goalposts ever right-wards’ (link).
Unless there is a change of strategy and orientation on the left, the process of ‘pushing the political goalposts ever right-wards’ will only continue. As has been shown, there is a means whereby the left can begin to compete, namely to ‘fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class’ because ‘in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement’ (link). As a strategy it can be arduous, unglamorous and requires a long term investment – a slow fix – but it is the only way forward if our side is serious about rising to the twin challenges of capitalist crisis and growing right-wing nationalism, not just here but in Europe. The austerity clawbacks offer a once in a century opportunity and if the left as a whole continues to shirk its responsibility, the judgement of history will be merciless and the consequences will be profound.