The working class as the desperate class?

The working class as the desperate class?

Review of “Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain” by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. 2014. Abingdon: Routledge.


This meticulous study of UKIP’s rise provides something that until now has been lacking: an academic yet accessible engagement with a political phenomenon for which it provides a history, an explanation, and a prognosis. Its clarity and breadth are impressive not least because [as outlined by the authors] the road to recognition and influence has been a rocky one, in which various episodes of demoralisation, organisational chaos and internecine strife threatened to sink the entire project. We manage to get a sense, therefore, of what the party is and means in the present day, while seeing among its formative experiences the ghosts of embittered ex-leaders, burnt-out ex-members, and rivals whose better funding and professionalism nonetheless did not prevent their extinction in the shadow of UKIP’s survival.

The ideological basis for UKIP’s revolt is identified as revolving around a set of concerns labelled “Brussels Plus”: that is, Eurosceptic sentiment combined either with populism or with negative views of immigration. Despite the pronounced campaigning focus on immigration in the past four years and the laughable obsolescence of myths that UKIP remain a single-issue party concerned only with the EU, some readers will be surprised to find that Euroscepticism remains the defining keystone in the attitudes of its voters. Barely anyone supports UKIP – no matter how compatible their general outlook – without already holding negative attitudes towards the EU. Before awaiting expectantly for the day when they inevitably reach the limits of their natural support base, however, we should also note that at this stage only a minority of already-Eurosceptic voters have actually cast a vote for Farage and friends. The murky pool in which they swim, while not inexhaustible, is equally not about to dry up overnight.

The class basis of UKIP’s support will undoubtedly be of most interest to readers on the socialist left. The authors have identified several sociological groups among which UKIP is strongest, characterised as “left behind”; these are the people less likely to own their home, to work in professional jobs, and to be highly educated; those who were a vast majority in the generation born before 1931, but who are now a minority in all generations born after 1975. However the authors go further and also set out a view of the class basis for supporters of several English parties, including the Greens and the BNP. The results are illuminating; as can be seen in the table partially reproduced below, these parties are essentially divided into two groupings: Labour, the BNP and UKIP who rely far more on the working class than on others; and the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Greens for whom the opposite is true.

UKIP BNP Labour Conservative Lib Dems Greens
Professional/managerial middle class 30 22 36 44 43 44
Routine non-manual (clerical, sales, services) 27 23 29 28 29 27
Working class / other / never worked 42 55 35 28 27 28

 

Naturally this analysis [which warrants further investigation] will come as a surprise for some, especially those who imagined that UKIP being to the right of the Tories on many social issues would mean their natural supporters should be found among the old guard, alienated by pro- equal marriage, pro-EU Cameroons. It also has profound implications for those who have fondly imagined that the Greens are well-placed in the near future to supplant Labour as a so-called genuine left-wing alternative; or latterly, that the recent ‘Green Surge’ might be composed mostly of disenfranchised worker-radicals finding a home after self-imposed exile from Blairism. The first possibility is that their thesis is incorrect – not improbable when we consider the vested interest left-wing Green Party members may have in wishing it were true. Alternatively, and perhaps more intriguingly, there is the possibility that the party now faces a prolonged series of conflicts, whether between a radicalised working-class membership and a more middle-class support base, or even within the party as class tensions come to the fore. These problems are certainly not to be unexpected in a party which can elect the likes of Pippa Bartolotti to the leadership, and emphasise in my opinion the importance of our efforts to analyse the class basis of the various organisations which are currently positioning themselves as left-wing alternatives, aiming to emulate continental trailblazers like Podemos or Syriza.

Fighting UKIP is essential not only in the context of more or less defensive anti-racist campaigns designed to defend communities and strengthen confidence in the viability of multiculturalism: it is also now an essential component task in the longer-term process of building a credible mass socialist alternative in this country which can break the stranglehold of Labourism. Too often our emotional response to the radical right has tended towards a simplistic desire to cleanse our public discourse of UKIP’s most egregious racist sentiments: this can be understood as a sort of residual echo of the fear and repulsion provoked by fascist street movements, which genuinely pose a threat to our safety and community life in the here and now. This preference for lowest-common-denominator condemnation of UKIP and attempts to banish them in shame from the realm of acceptable mainstream opinion can have the unfortunate consequence of fostering uncritical attitudes towards our bourgeois democracy.

The long march of UKIP through the various challenges mentioned previously should make it clear that the construction of a mass movement does not happen overnight, and we in turn should reject strategies which depend upon (or tail) sudden and unexpected upsurges in activity. The lack of professionalism, of funding, of interest shown by the public in UKIP throughout its first decade of existence will seem oddly familiar to many of us, as will the tales of wanting to throw in the towel and yet for some reason carrying on.

Although the enfant terrible they have nurtured has accorded them a belated degree of attention, the “left behind” social groups identified as typical UKIP voters are not the be-all and end-all in terms of wider society: in fact it is precisely their relative numerical and social weakness which has allowed them to be ignored by the mainstream supporters and driven into UKIP’s welcoming arms. However, these people are prepared to vote in increasingly large numbers, and building a socialist alternative must be about class conflict, i.e. winning the support of these groups and offering them perspectives and tools to use to their own advantage in the struggles they face. These older men [and they are mostly men] may look and talk like the stereotypical ‘working man’ did 40 years ago, and yet they pose a compound problem for the left. To ignore them, as we have seen, means ceding their support to a radical right upsurge which may yet have consequences we can neither predict, nor prevent until it’s too late. Equally, to play to their concerns in a patronising and shallow way will mean giving up crucial battles on key social issues (welfare, migration, crime and justice) would mean a disastrous collapse for socialist ideas as these are rejected in favour of purely economistic demands. These left-behind voters, if Ford and Goodwin are correct in such a categorisation, will be a necessary component in winning the majority of society to our ideas; their new-found importance serves to highlight, among other things, the inadequacy of merely carving out a space for socialist ideas in the hinterland of increasingly pathetic Labourism and public-sector dominated Trade Unionism.

Above all, we should note that the themes dealt with in explaining UKIP’s so-called ‘revolt’ are not trivial or shallow in the manner of Farage-ism soundbites on the iniquities of the EU, but are profound inter-generational shifts which defy easy solutions, let alone those which we are in a position to offer. At a risk of sounding flippant, the key lesson to be learnt is that we have missed the chance to learn these lessons; the horse has long since bolted. The authors have a longstanding focus on mainstream and parliamentary British politics (the gadfly phenomenon of the SDP looms large in the background). As such, the far left does not feature heavily in the narratives they are interested in exploring. As socialists, however, we might also observe that if the disenfranchised supporters of UKIP are ‘left behind’ then the left bears some responsibility in having allowed them to reach that state of affairs. It is worth reflecting on the fact that a stock aspiration among broad-leftists is to build a “UKIP of the left”. Could things possibly have turned out differently, with Farage languishing from 2001 to 2005 trying in vain to build a “Socialist Alliance of the Right”? Or the five years after that, trying to counter RESPECT in the same way? What does it say about the state of our movement that many today will find such counterfactuals laughable?

 

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