Last week’s by-elections have proved once and for all that Nigel Farage and his party are a force to be reckoned with, notes Paul Demarty
A laughing matter
The media in this country has, over the past couple of years, developed a peculiar obsession with a single image - Nigel Farage’s grin.
He beams at us, day after day, from newspaper front pages - one bar-room photo op after another. His eyes light up with laughter; his two rows of reasonably well-maintained gnashers invariably parted, to speed the progress of a silent guffaw.
The grin, like all great pop-cultural images, changes its significance over time. It was not too long ago that the UK Independence Party was a bit of a joke. After a bruising encounter with the ego of Robert Kilroy-Silk, Ukip saw its electoral successes dry up in the middle of the last decade. David Cameron, the newly-minted Tory leader at the time, felt confident to describe the ’kippers as mostly “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
From this great reverse, Ukip had to be reborn. The man they chose to do the job was Nigel Farage. And, so long as his party remained on the near-fringes of bourgeois politics, his most striking pose was - well - a bit of a laugh, really. Farage was a clown; he was the jester in a Shakespeare play, needling the protagonists, while being demonstrably irrelevant to the overall plot.
The last two years have changed things. Ukip has grown, and grown in significance. By-election shocks, scores of new councillors, first place in this year’s European parliament elections: Farage is no longer a walk-on part, but a major villain. His grin is no longer gormless, but threatening. His new sidekick, Douglas Carswell, likes to smile as well: a picture of the two is something to behold. Has Nigel known, all along, something we don’t?
Grim up north
Carswell’s success in the Clacton by-election was hardly unexpected: not only did all the polling suggest that this high-profile Tory defector and assiduous constituency politician would cruise to victory, but you could be forgiven for wondering if the Tories bothered to campaign at all. Boris Johnson, the most Faragian character in modern Toryism, could not even remember the name of his party’s candidate. (In case you were wondering, it was Giles Watling, an also-ran of British situation comedy. He is most recently credited - appropriately, given Farage’s ale-toting persona - as ‘Man in Pub’ in the infamous Danny Dyer vehicle, Run for your wife.)
The simultaneous by-election in Heywood and Middleton, despite Ukip’s narrow defeat, is more surprising - and just as valuable to Farage as the Clacton victory. Clacton, after all, was cited by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford in their book, Revolt on the right, as the constituency most likely, in demographic terms, to return a Ukip MP. Heywood and Middleton is a constituency in Greater Manchester. It has returned Labour MPs since its creation in 1983. Yet Ukip came close enough to victory to force a recount, before Labour’s Liz McInnes was declared victorious.
This result has been leapt upon by the bourgeois press as evidence of Labour’s vulnerability to Ukip, distracting attention from the corrosive effect Farage’s merry crew are having on the Tory vote. We must voice a certain amount of scepticism here. Labour’s percentage of the vote, after all, rose (albeit marginally) compared to 2010; the striking feature of last week’s poll was the total collapse of the government parties: the Liberal Democrats retained their deposit by 34 votes, having garnered 22.7% in 2010. The Tories likewise dropped nearly 15 percentage points.
On the other hand, Labour gained by far its lowest absolute number of votes in the entire history of the seat - 11,633 on a turnout of 36% of eligible voters. When the Murdoch papers and crowing Blairites complain that people are hardly raring to go out and vote Miliband, it is difficult to object too strongly. Blairites in particular like to point out that Harwich - the defunct constituency from which Clacton was extracted in 2005 - returned a Labour MP in 1997 and 2001. ‘Red’ Ed, so the argument goes, just does not have the pull in swing constituencies that he needs.
All of which is guaranteed to keep Nigel grinning. Since the by-elections, poll ratings for Ukip have soared. A purple vote is no longer obviously wasted - it is by no means fanciful to picture a handful of Ukip MPs in the Commons by this time next year. Farage claims that his Heywood and Middleton candidate did pick up Labour votes; only Lib Dem defections saved McInnes. Until serious numbers become available, we can only say that it is a perfectly plausible tale. Barring some truly enormous disaster, Ukip hopefuls will go into May 2015 confident in their ability to give the established parties a scare.
As Farage laughs his way into 2015, we could forgive our comrades on the left for being a little bewildered. This, after all, was supposed to be our time: a City broker turned ultra-Thatcherite politician like Farage should not have got a look-in.
We have argued, however, that the left simply cannot get a handle on what forces were really unleashed by the 2008 crash - not a leftwing reaction to collapsing neoliberal orthodoxy, but overwhelmingly a rightwing one. Despite its Thatcherism, Ukip succeeds because any concrete economic position it takes is obscured under a momentarily convenient populism. Thus it can drop the rightwing pipe dream of a flat rate of income tax the moment it becomes inconvenient; it can switch between petty bourgeois fear-mongering and sympathy for the plight of the beleaguered British worker, right-libertarianism and love of the National Health Service.
What do you call such a thing? The Morning Star provides us with a dramatic illustration of the confusion that exists. Its editorial column, has some sage advice: “Branding Ukip and by extension its misled new followers as racists or fascists dissuades nobody.” Quite so, comrades (though, of course, the Star no doubt has its own anti-EU chauvinism in mind here). Such a shame, then, that elsewhere in the same edition we discover the headline “Clacton secures racist Ukip’s first parliamentary seat” (my emphasis, October 11). Has free speech broken out at Star Towers, or did “home affairs reporter” Paddy McGuffin just not get the memo?
Alas, it is comrade McGuffin who is more representative of the left than his cooler-headed editors. The Socialist Workers Party’s central committee, defending its dire Stand Up To Ukip campaign in the organisation’s first pre-conference bulletin, writes that “much of [current] anti-migrant racism is targeted at white east European workers. This has created more complex arguments for anti-racists. It has allowed Ukip to go on a migrant-bashing rampage and at the same time claim it is not racist.”
More “complex” arguments indeed are required to condemn as “racist” prejudices which are not actually directed against other ‘races’! In truth, we know what is going on: since racism is generally agreed to be a Bad Thing, successfully convincing people that a given enemy is guilty of racism is enough to condemn it. For an ostensibly revolutionary organisation to make this a political priority, on the other hand, requires believing that anti-racism is not the official ‘common sense’; the position, beyond being straightforwardly nonsensical, is self-contradictory in its motive forces.
Ukip, to be crystal clear, is not a racist party. It is virulently chauvinist, reactionary, cryptically anti-gay and - while it is no longer politic for David Cameron to say so - littered with fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists. Whenever such racists surface, however, they find themselves outside the organisation double-quick: because Farage wishes to be all things to all people, so long as they feel left behind by the political establishment.
This is not good for Ukip’s long-term prospects. Even its short-term victories are not unassailable. Douglas Carswell is now Ukip’s favourite man - but he is a generally socially liberal individual, who happens to be of a Eurosceptic bent. How well will he fit into a party whose councillors have blamed floods on the legalisation of gay marriage?
Such is the trouble with setting one’s party up as an undifferentiated repository for any and all gripes about the establishment. All these gripes simply do not add up. Polls have shown that, apart from the issue of immigration, the majority of Ukip voters are well to the left of their chosen party - far more fond of the welfare state, the NHS and so on; and far more keen on aggressively progressive taxation.
It is possible to go a long way in politics pretending these contradictions do not exist. Beyond a certain point, however, a party must cease to ‘really mean it’; must join in the game of manipulating popular sentiment with no intention of translating policy into government action; in short, must become part of the hated establishment.
None of this is likely to kick in before next May, however, so we have an interesting election season on our hands - albeit for the worst of reasons.