I had an article published in OpenDemocracy, the online journal, yesterday.
Below is an extended version, which makes additional praise of Defend the Right to Protest, discusses political mantras and burnt-out stock exchanges, and suggests some problems with community-based politics.
The rise of UKIP? Get over it. The real vote is against Westminster.
Farage’s ascent says less about the Tories and more about a wider rejection of politics and politicians.
“UKIP will continue to challenge the cosy Westminster” consensus”. With 357 likes and 104 shares, party leader Nigel Farage’s Facebook comment a week before their local elections triumph nicely summed up the appeal of his persona and his party. But whilst the commentariat get themselves into knots over the real effects of their policies – not realising that policy isn’t part of the appeal, far from it – what’s occurred is a more basic rejection of Westminster politics and politicians.
Let’s take a moment to understand the appeal of voting UKIP. Take these two points:
First, via esteemed analyst Andrew Rawnsley, of a recent focus group of UKIP voters: “Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: “The past.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement.”
Second, from a recent YouGov poll: “More than three-quarters (76%) cite a desire to see immigration to Britain reduced, and 59% say a desire to see Britain leave the European Union – the primary objective of the party at its founding in 1991 – is what made them vote UKIP.”
We’ve been here before. Four years prior, the BNP were touted for big gains in local elections, as pundits lined up in unison to denounce the party’s apparent racism. For alienated working-class voters, the condemnation of any discussion about cultural identity, civic pride and social cohesion attacked one of the few remaining points of community in towns blighted by unemployment, poverty and despair. The easy, emotive appeal of ‘common sense’ and ‘independence’ secured local gains that later evaporated as BNP officials proved incompetent to staff local government. The experience of UKIP may well be similar, but that desire won’t go away.
What’s more dangerous for Westminster is the growing rejection of the two main parties that’s already stirring. The inability of the Conservatives to form a majority government back in 2010 first sparked alarm in the political class. With Miliband’s ultra-bland Labour party unable to capitalise on contemporary discontents, 2015 looks like a quagmire of uncertainty, backroom-dealing and more minority government. The career-politician could be an endangered species.
But what does this rejection of Westminster mean?
In my experience as a community worker, many people feel ignored, betrayed and pessimistic. They lack political representation in a parliament dominated by an Oxbridge-educated class of smarmy upper-class career-politicians. There is genuine cause for concern. Our most recent two prime ministers lacked a popular mandate: Gordon Brown remained unelected, whilst Cameron’s Conservatives, the dominant party in the current government, only secured 23% of the available electoral vote in 2010 – the current projected national share of UKIP, according to the BBC. In their eyes, Westminster politicians and the wider establishment possess little credibility: memories of the MPs’ Expenses Scandal remain. Leveson’s inquiry brought to the fore the sinister collusion of press officers like Coulson, police bribery, and newspaper hacking. Meanwhile the current government unscrupulously and aggressively pursues its cheap flogging of the nation’s family silver – privatising the NHS, police forces, post office, prisons – anything that might possibly still belong to the public – and dismantling the welfare system. It’s a terrifying prospect for many, but without any real mainstream political opposition, we feel powerless to oppose.
Insecurity is everywhere amongst young and old. Organisations which were established to protect the British public have been mired in corruption. Racism and suspicious deaths in custody continue to blight the widely-discredited metropolitan police. Overseas, our ‘brave boys’ are caught in another Iraqi torture scandal. Add that to the catastrophic failure to prosecute or imprison any of the reckless bankers involved in the 2008 Credit Crisis, or even reform the financial system in any real way. Whilst inflation increases, wages and benefits are cut in real terms, and the poor, the disabled and their carers bear the brunt of austerity, HMRC allows major corporations and CEOs to avoid paying taxes. Outside the Tory shires, in the deprived estates of Manchester, Birmingham or south London where I live, there is a visceral sense that this is a war against the poor. Voters are aware of all this happening, of course they are. As yet another cleric or former TV star is arrested in a new sex scandal, the British are clinging for something new to believe in.
As the late author JG Ballard remarked of our political culture back in 2003, ‘nothing is real, everything is fake.’
With politics now little more than advertising, Farage retails a cosy myth of English country-pub authenticity. As with the other political parties, prod a finger beneath the connection of myth to policy and the meaning becomes risible. No matter, it’s an advert. Either way, the attraction of a new model on the market, a new colour to choose instead of a rootsy, liberal red or an aspirational, family-values blue, is popular fare. We forget that it was Clegg’s proposed ‘new politics’ during the 2010 elections TV debates that led to his surge in the polls. Anything, so long as it’s none of the above. But the danger is that in age of advertisements, most citizens are left with an increasingly absurd narrative of individual success (and culpability) as basis of social worth, something as convincing as cigarette manufacturers extolling the health benefits of blowing smoke rings. Like another dodgy narrative of our time, that of the continuous, unlimited economic growth which some neoliberal economists still delusively call for, the landing back to reality will be rude, harsh and painful.
Though Farage may well make major gains in the June 2014 European elections, his new voters will soon get bored and cynical. Style over substance is also characteristic of the Westminster politician. Every politician has a mantra: for Blair, it was the oft-repeated ‘modernising’ and ‘new’; for Cameron, ‘fairness’; for Farage, ‘ordinary people’ and ‘common sense’. Repeated loudly enough and often, it becomes semantically meaningless but takes on the power of a command. And who can disagree with common sense, fairness, or modernisation? Even the historically-vague ‘Britishness’ is a tough one to disagree with. These terms shut down free thought and discussion.
Though many on the right may be in awe of Farage, like for instance Peter Oborne, who writes adoringly of ‘his pint of beer, his Rothmans, his cheerful saloon-bar views and his patent authenticity’, the mass of public opinion is still elsewhere, let’s be clear. But in dismissing UKIP as ‘fruitcakes’, ‘clowns’ and mavericks, the Westminster establishment are unintentionally providing them with a brilliant PR coup. With a total absence of tangible alternatives, these sectarian jibes could offer a dangerous illusion that UKIP are meaningfully opposed to the political establishment, rather than another part of it. Similarly, calls for a ‘UKIP of the Left‘ inadvertently reaffirm the validity of the party whilst also patronising the wide body of citizens, not taking into the account the real, untapped and repressed reasons for their profound discontent.
For those committed to justice, equality, and democracy, the divisive question remains: what is to be done?
Despite having scrambled in many different directions, the Left is so far struggling to reach out to this collective disaffection. Its older entities are now either dead or dying – the Lib Dems and SWP have become tarnished by their own accusations of sex scandals and corruption. But fortunately, a number of good, well-meaning initiatives are already under way.
Defend the Right to Protest deserve special credit in its effective publicisation and challenge to legal abuses in criminalising dissent. Dan Hind’s energies in proposing a new movement of constitutionally-driven ‘People’s Assemblies‘ against austerity are also compelling. In drawing attention to the power of a new constitutional movement (something I’ve also written about in my recent book Negative Capitalism), Hind makes a good case for uniting popular power via a simple, social democratic programme of local meetings. Throwing a carrot out to the newly-formed Left Unity, Hind calls for a new political party to represent this movement for people’s assemblies. Small community-based Left Unity groups have begun springing up around the country, offering some hope from the usual gloom. Graham MacPhee has also written convincingly here of the benefit of using constitutional change as an opportunity to transform government and restrict the influence of private capital.
Both the People’s Assembly and Left Unity are pursuing a similar thought – provide and establish a common Left voice. But without trying to shit the proverbial bed, these calls haven’t so far been particularly persuasive or popular, at least, not on a similar scale to mass movements of the 1930s or 70s, during periods of similar social and political strife.
Much of the community values espoused are predicated on people, especially young people, already being socialised to wish to create, and be able to effectively run, community structures. Again, drawing on my experiences running different London charity support services, there’s a discernible generational difference in how people take, and use, community support. Whilst older people would be more familiar and likely to join activity groups and social events for the pleasure of it, younger people would get in contact for specific advice, usually around benefits or money, or training to boost a CV, and for this value alone. There’s a wide number of reasons for that, but one I think is a shift in mindset. As Ballard pointed out repeatedly at the end of his life, people today are more likely to desire to be alone, and to be alone with their fantasies, something which personal technologies enable. How do we realistically face this, and use this? I don’t know, I’m not sure. But I wonder if something that reaches out to those fantasies in a simple, compelling way ought also to be on the agenda. It is this kind of appeal, based on a simple xenophobia, that UKIP offers.
Lacking political organisation, some simple gut messages and a charismatic figurehead, there’s plenty that could be learned from the appeal of UKIP. Valuing opportunity, discipline, hard work, or attacking the entitlement culture of bankers and the Oxbridge elite – these are all vote winners. Or protecting communities and developers from the excesses of austerity cuts, shambolic PFI developments or pitiless high-street moneylending – all easy messages. Or even a nostalgia for Britain as it once was – the ‘Spirit of 45′ which forged the NHS and enjoyed proper-functioning nationalised industries, a housing boom, which rebuilt itself after the war – it’s all in reach. Who wants it?
The challenge for the Left is to create a new narrative. This means a programmatic vision, but one that must also be underscored by an attention and skill in visual propaganda, as well as some infrastructure to deliver both. Outside the freedom of expression of the internet, or the back-patting of the fortnightly meeting of the older comrades, the contemporary street-scene is dominated by adverts and decay that are anything but radical. Stickers, subvertising, or the occasional burnt-out stock exchange could all make for inspirational counter-visions. At this juncture, pessimism, a belief that the future will be worse than the past, links the mindsets of both the Left and Right.
The UKIP voters quoted at the beginning found nothing good to speak of in contemporary Britain. Whilst the Right recycles cliches of England’s scepter’d isle and Tories fear for their political lives over a meaningless EU referendum, the real problems of the UK’s declining social fabric and its ‘lost generation’ of unemployed youth remains.