Saturday, 10 December 2016

Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Published in 2014, this award-winning book was the first sustained attempt to assess and explain the evidence for the rise of the UK Independence Party.  Ford and Goodwin are two of the country's leading experts on the political right wing.  They draw on statistical data, face-to-face interviews and published writings to trace the rise of UKIP and identify who is supporting the party and why.  The book can be somewhat dry, with a great deal of graphs and statistics, but some clear and important messages emerge from the authors' research.

UKIP is the first new mass political entity to arise in the UK since the Labour Party was founded in 1900 (the SDP, a top-down project run out of Westminster, doesn't count).  Founded in 1993, the party performed dismally for years, save for brief peaks during European Parliament elections.  But its support took off in 2011, and the party achieved a breakthrough in 2013, winning over 24% of the vote in the local elections of that year and 28% in the Eastleigh parliamentary by-election.

As Ford and Goodwin note, UKIP did not emerge from the long and ugly tradition of British fascism - a fact which, crucially, meant that it was never tabooed by the media like the BNP.  While the evidence does reveal some overlap between support for UKIP and the BNP, UKIP was essentially the offspring of a different political family: not racist skinheads in northern milltowns, but the golf club wing of the Conservative Party.  For years, its core support came disproportionately from disaffected Tories in southern England.  Many of its members saw its purpose as being not to win power but to push the Conservative establishment towards a harder line on the EU.  This widespread view of the party as a kind of single-issue pressure group meant that UKIP did not bother publishing a fully detailed and costed programme of policies until as late as the 2010 election; and at that election the party leadership was still giving support to Eurosceptic Conservative candidates in some constituencies.

All this has been changing, however.  As early as the 1990s, analysts made an interesting discovery.  Once they crossed the threshold of 3% of the vote, UKIP (and its former Eurosceptic twin, the Referendum Party) stopped merely hoovering up disaffected Tories and began to eat into Labour and Lib Dem support.  For years, UKIP struggled to keep its head above the 3% threshold; but the plates shifted during the 2010-2015 Parliament.  By the end of 2013, the party's support in opinion polls was running at over 10% and it was drawing more voters from the left than from the right.  One activist is quoted as saying:
Who suffers from poor crime?  Who suffers from villains who get seventeen cautions?  Who suffers when the local comprehensive is not effective?  Who lost their job in the pub because of a nice-looking girl from Slovakia?  It ain't nice middle-class Tories.  It's people in council estates.
In 2012, the Tory politician Lord Ashcroft organised a large-scale battery of polls and focus groups in an attempt to uncover the new basis of UKIP's support.  He found that the Eurosceptic party's voters appeared to come disproportionately from less socially advantaged groups.  He concluded:
These voters think Britain is changing for the worse.  They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame.  They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better.
The British Election Study's Continuous Monitoring Survey came independently to the same conclusion, throwing up the startling discovery that UKIP had a higher proportion of working-class supporters than any of the main parties, including Labour.  Before the rise of UKIP, such voters seem to have simply stayed at home (or, in some cases, supported the BNP).

This shift in the political scene was dramatic, but it should not have been surprising.  Other European countries were already quite well used to the phenomenon of populistic nationalist parties rising to prominence on the backs of working-class voters.  Ford and Goodwin argue that space was opened up on the right for a new party by the decline of the blue-collar working class as a leading force in British society.  Ambitious politicians came to prioritise winning the support of liberal middle-class voters: witness Tony Blair with New Labour and David Cameron with his modernising brand of Conservatism.  The financial crisis from 2008 onwards dealt a further blow to the credibility of the main parties.  The authors argue that older and less wealthy male voters - whom they refer to, a little patronisingly, as the "left behind" - felt neglected.  They therefore ended up turning to a radical, anti-establishment alternative:
UKIP, a party formed for a very different purpose, and which initially appealed to very different voters, has, almost by accident, stumbled across this potent new social division and given it a voice.
UKIP is still very clearly an anti-EU party, of course, but it has become a broader anti-establishment party and, in particular, an anti-immigrant party.  These issues are connected, as the EU is both a major part of the modern political establishment and a key driver of immigration.

As we all know, immigration is the elephant in the room in any discussion about the populist right.  Ford and Goodwin avoid coming to explicit value judgements about whether UKIP voters' concerns over immigration are justified.  On the one hand, they note that immigration really has increased in recent times, placing pressure on public services and exposing some voters to difficult economic competition.  On the other hand, they also recognise that anti-immigrant sentiment is driven in part by narrow xenophobic ideas about Britishness which are more difficult to sympathise with.  This reflects the debate that has been ignited among Democrats in America - was Trump's victory a wake-up call from economically disadvantaged voters who were neglected by the likes of Hillary Clinton, or was it the product of racist bigotry which should be denounced and defeated?

The authors' work is important and illuminating; but it raises a few questions which they don't really succeed in grappling with:
  • Why now, and why nationalism?  It has probably always been the case that the United Kingdom has been governed by a more or less out-of-touch √©lite.  Poverty and deprivation have certainly always been with us.  Yet the rise of UKIP has been sudden and unprecedented.  Why has the revolt happened now, and why has it taken the form of radical nationalism?  Britain in the 1930s was neither more economically comfortable nor more racially tolerant than Britain in 2016, yet Nigel Farage has become a kind of folk hero whereas Oswald Mosley was mostly just laughed at.  The authors' thesis maintains that the mainstream parties have evolved over the long term into middle-class, ideology-lite groupings, leaving space for a radical populist alternative.  But the rise of Corbynism has seriously undermined that explanation.  If discontented voters want an ideologically radical, anti-establishment force, why do they prefer UKIP to Momentum?
  • What about the Celtic countries?  The authors recognise that UKIP is an essentially English phenomenon.  It has always found it more difficult to attract voters in Wales and (particularly) Scotland.  That doesn't mean that Scotland has been immune to the lure of nationalism, but the nationalism of the SNP is different from that of UKIP (at least on the surface).
  • What happens next?  Ford and Goodwin estimate that UKIP's total potential constituency consists of no more than 20-30% of the electorate.  If UKIP voters are older men who have been badly served by deindustrialisation, is the party's support time-limited?  The authors write:
"UKIP barely registers with younger voters, graduates, ethnic minorities or voters who do not share their opposition to the EU.  UKIP also struggles with women, even those who share the social background and political concerns of male UKIP supporters."
On the other hand, the populist right does not have to form a majority in order to do a lot of damage.  In combination with assorted other foes of the EU, they managed to win the Brexit vote.  In combination with establishment Republicans in America, they managed to elect Donald Trump.