UKIP-mania has swept Britain, or rather, its chattering classes. If we were to form our opinions solely on the basis of those found in the bourgeois media (as the media’s own members do), we would be able to think of nothing but the inevitable rise of UKIP to electoral dominance.
A sober, materialist analysis however reveals that the party’s current ascendence has been facilitated by highly contradictory forces that can push in the same direction only temporarily. But the size of the hole this petty-bourgeois formation has managed to punch in the mainstream electoral machine reveals the decaying and tottering structure of bourgeois democracy in Britain today. It is a hole that the real working class movement, that is the Labour movement, must boldly step through with socialist policies.
Decades of disappointment and alienation
For decades the political landscape of Britain has been as flat as its economy has since 2008. Basing its policy on a capitalism in long-term decline, the Labour Party has no room for manoeuvre. Even as it sits in opposition to a deeply unpopular Conservative Party carrying out harsh austerity, it cannot raise the aspirations of workers to fight for a different programme, for its leaders and advisors are so steeped in the management of capitalism that they know there is no alternative they can deliver under this system.
We cannot understand the deep political tremors associated with UKIP’s rise if we do not put it in the context of decades of disappointment and alienation from the narrow politics of Westminster and Labour’s shameful role in that.
Although it has been remarked upon in the mainstream press, the professional pundits do not seriously factor into their analysis the profound fact of abstention in the local and European elections held in Britain in May 2014. In the vote for the European Parliament, in which the UKIP success story would appear to shine brightest, Farage’s party secured approximately 27% of the vote and came first. First, that is, from all those who actually cast votes, which was a derisory 34% of the electorate. That is to say, 9% of the electorate voted for UKIP in an election seen not as an opportunity to determine the course the country takes but merely to make a statement. It should also be added that their percentage of the vote in the concurrent local elections, at 17%, was significantly lower than last year (admittedly more seats were contested this time) when it was 22%.
Elections can be very superficial in how much they tell us about people’s attitudes. A party that comes first may also be more hated than all the others, and that appears to be the case with UKIP. In an ICM poll carried out in March 2014, when people were asked how much they liked respective parties, UKIP came last with 19 points, behind the Lib Dems (20), the Tories (30) and Labour (36). When asked the extent of their dislike for given parties, UKIP was the most actively disliked, and Labour the least disliked.
Evidently, the fact that the party came first means something, but it is not at all clear from this vote that there is any powerful and enthusiastic support for this party in Britain. It says far more about the ailing of the mainstream parties thanks to their shared responsibility for decades of right-wing pro-capitalist governments. The Labour leadership has only itself to blame for this.
More than seven times as many people failed to vote as voted for UKIP. There is, especially amongst the working class, a wholesale rejection of the enterprise of bourgeois democracy at present, especially for the latter’s particularly grotesque manifestation in Strasbourg. Workers rightly do not feel that the European Parliament is in any way theirs, and in the refusal to vote for it there is far more truth than in Miliband’s appeals for responsible capitalism. The decline of bourgeois democracy as a mirror to capitalism’s crisis is the main lesson from these elections, not the appeal of UKIP.
The meaning of UKIP’s “success”
Nevertheless it is true that UKIP has scored a certain success in gaining the ear of layers of the working class - although again, we have to bear in mind that far, far more workers reject UKIP than vote for it. But what is the meaning of UKIP, which is after all a rightwing Thatcherite party, gaining the support of workers?
We all know that inequality is growing to unprecedented levels in Britain today. Real wages have been stagnating for much longer than since the crisis of 2008, and secure jobs in industry have been being destroyed for decades, to be replaced by insecure, ‘flexible’ service sector jobs, debt and less trade union rights. That this is a story we all know so well demonstrates the extent to which the class polarisation of capitalist Britain has penetrated the popular consciousness.
There is a lot to complain about in modern Britain, and increasingly so. And there is little to celebrate. There is no shortage of grievances, bitterness, frustration and stress. There is a burning anger at the ‘elites’ - in other words, an inchoate class consciousness. Many on the left have pointed out how easily such feelings are turned towards blaming immigrants, which is certainly a string to UKIP’s bow. But the Tories and even Labour have been banging the anti-immigrant drum for a some years now, and there is little evidence of its success in garnering votes.
UKIP’s real strength in the working class is that, in distinction from all the main parties, Nigel Farage complains a lot, and a lot louder than the others. The party’s role as an outsider gifts Farage the role of not being responsible for all the problems and injustices of modern Britain, and thus he has a free reign to insincerely vent his spleen against ‘the elites’, especially those in Brussels.
Miliband cannot do this because he is clearly from the world of Blair and Brown, and thus responsible for Britain’s problems. Basing himself on the expectation of coming to power in 2015 and managing British capitalism, he cannot afford to channel the burning anger of the working class who will still largely vote for him - because to do that he needs to adopt socialist policies. Not only does all this mean his policies are wrong, but also as a leader he is inhibited by responsibility for capitalism and is thus a pathetic figure. The man has no confidence in his politics or party and is more often than not nowhere to be seen.
Anti-working class policies
But it is likely that this represents the high water mark for UKIP’s working class influence. Farage’s party and social base are decidedly petty-bourgeois little Englanders whom he (and many others) are well versed in whipping up into a reactionary hysteria, with fantasies of being freed from European red-tape and tax. Having conquered the support of sections of the petty-bourgeoisie, UKIP has a base from which to capture working class votes here and there.
This strategy can be seen from the fact that their initial programme, which was hard right Thatcherism - featuring such policies as: a flat tax rate, so that billionaires would pay the same rate as low paid workers; the immediate privatisation of the NHS; and sacking of two million public sector workers - is being ditched for more ‘left-wing’ policies such as progressive taxation.
Their initial ultra-reactionary positions reflected the rabid rank-and-file of the party, and it is to the shame of the Labour leadership and many on the left that instead of exposing UKIP for having such unpalatable policies on TV and in the press, they instead simply denounced it and its supporters as racist, thus contributing to public ignorance of UKIP’s programme. To be sure, their disgraceful racism must be exposed also, but not instead of relentlessly exposing their extreme anti-working class policies.
Foundations of sand
This apparent shift to the ‘left’ since the election, with Farage talking of a (white) working class underclass existing in Britain and pledging to move to a policy of progressive income tax, reveals the sands that the party is built on. Its base is and will remain thoroughly petty-bourgeois, which is the weakest and most inconsistent of all classes in Britain.
Their base is in extreme contradiction with the small layer of workers that voted for them in May. Moreover, as a party founded on the idiocy of home-counties little-Englanders, they are inevitably riven with inconsistencies, disagreements, petty rivalries and corruption.
In an extremely enlightening interview for the Guardian, UKIP’s founder (and ex member) Alan Sked revealed that “Ukip MEPs do little to no work in Strasbourg and Brussels but take as much public money as possible in the form of salaries and, especially, expenses...They're hardly ever there. They just turn up for expenses. They don't turn up for key debates....Farage has become a millionaire from expenses." The article points out that “Farage, of course, told foreign journalists in 2009 that he'd taken £2 million of taxpayers' money in expenses and allowances as an MEP on top of his £64,000-a-year salary.”
Of particular interest is Sked’s remark that UKIP MEPs do not even vote the same way: "When there were only three Ukip MEPs, the LSE European Studies institute found they voted three different ways."
Such a remark highlights the internal contradictions within UKIP, which, whilst being portrayed by Farage as a party of the people, does not have a clear programme, and which will see intra-party feuding once it is forced to take a concrete position and make a decision on important economic questions.
Exposed in power
It is clear that UKIP is not a party that will be propelled to power by a popular movement any time soon. They are a ragtag of petty-bourgeois amateurs and dilettantes who have to some extent become a lightning rod for popular anger for lack of any other outlet.
Up until now, UKIP has managed to survive and grow on the basis of two clear and related policies: say No to the EU; and reduce immigration into the UK. Their 2010 General Election programme - containing many of their most right-wing, libertarian policies - has been disowned by Farage; but no programme has been put it its place. Such a tactic is a purposeful move on the part of the UKIP leader to allow the party to be a blank canvas, onto which any grievances and anger amongst the population can be projected.
But such a tactic is also extremely short-sighted. In the run up to the 2015 General Election, a more complete manifesto will be required. Some within the party will call for a range of hardline, pro-austerity, and racist policies; others will wish to be more “moderate”. And with no internal democracy - since the party is mainly the one-man Farage show - UKIP could easily be torn to pieces by internal arguments over policy.
Such a motley crew will not fare well when called upon to actually lead local governments, something which did for the BNP. They will have to carry out the same cuts being implemented currently by local councils across the country, and will be exposed as being no different to the main three parties whose leaders Farage currently denounces.
We have already seen the diatribe of bigotry from some of their candidates. Who knows what gaffes, verbal and financial, are in store for this party when it takes the reins of local government? What kind of infighting from these characters will be on public display? The party is not a stable formation and is liable to fall as fast as it has risen.
A crisis of the political establishment
But the greatest damage will be done to UKIP when the working class and its organisations are mobilised in class struggle, which will tend to pull away from UKIP those disaffected workers who perceive Farage as giving voice to their grievances. Once the working class has created its own living mass movement which genuinely expresses their anger and interests they will see through the illusion that is UKIP’s ‘common man’ approach - that is, if they haven’t already seen through it, which as we have shown the majority of workers have.
As Owen Jones highlighted in his ‘Open Letter to UKIP voters’, a YouGov poll showed that UKIP voters are overwhelmingly in favour of the nationalisation of energy and rail, are for keeping the NHS public and a ‘substantial increase’ in the minimum wage, all of which are directly in contradiction with UKIP policy. This more than anything else reveals the class contradictions built into the foundations of UKIP’s temporary success. A clear majority of those voting for them strongly disagree with their programme and would be greatly attracted to the Labour Party, which in many cases they will still see as their party, if it boldly adhered to the above policies of nationalisation and a living wage.
The crisis in the political establishment caused by UKIP’s support is a pale shadow of the crisis that will be precipitated by the movement of the working class. Decades of privatisations, attacks on workers’ rights, growing inequality, economic crisis and political scandals in the establishment have shattered conservative attitudes of respect for the ruling class. Sooner or later the attacks of austerity will provoke an almighty movement of the working class, in which all the repressed anger of the past period will be expressed. To really smash the establishment, the working class will learn that it must stand and fight for its own interests, that is, for a socialist programme to transform society.