UKIP, from a single issue party to the radical right: real symptom, wrong diagnosis

Mondon, A (2015) ‘UKIP, from a single issue party to the radical right: real symptom, wrong diagnosis’, TOR, Vol.1, 25-27

UKIP has been given an important amount of media space, both as a contender and issue in the 2014 EU elections and 2015 General elections. While the party created an ‘earthquake’ a year ago when it won the European contest, its results in the General Elections have proven harder to gauge either positively or negatively. UKIP only managed to send one candidate to Westminster (Douglas Carswell, a defector from the Conservative party), losing not only the second seat it had acquired after another Tory defection, but also with Nigel Farage himself failing to win South Thanet. On paper, it seems that the ‘purple revolution’ has petered out. However, it would be mistaken to reduce UKIP’s electoral performance to the number of seats in parliament it will occupy. On the whole, the party performed well when considering it polled second in 125 seats across England and Wales  (Steafel et al. 11 May 2015). Such contradictory accounts of UKIP’s performance are further nuanced when abstention is taken into account. With 33.9% abstention, UKIP’s overall share of the registered vote falls to 8.3% – a figure which is even lower when non-registered voters are taken into account. This suggests therefore that while the performance of UKIP should not be downplayed, it is not the alternative it has been painted to be in much of the media as the party has failed to appeal to more than one out of ten British voters despite very favourable circumstances  (Mondon Forthcoming 2015).

From a single-issue party to the radical right

Yet it is clear that the former single-issue party has become an important player in British parliamentary politics, if not for its presence in Westminster, but in the media. It is argued here that part of its success has come from its transition from a narrow Eurosceptic platform to a radical right strategy. While this move has certainly limited the appeal of the party to certain parts of the electorate, it has strengthened its status as an outsider and an alternative, through its constant and disproportionate mediatisation.

Defining the radical right is a task in itself  (Mudde 2007), and one which cannot be done justice to in this short article. For clarity and brevity, I will focus on the three aspects I believe to be core to contemporary radical right parties: nativism, neo-racism and right-wing populism. However, many examples suggest that UKIP has moved to what is considered other traditional core concepts of the radical right such as a strong symbolic leadership and authoritarianism.

Nativism and neo-racism

Nativism can be described as ‘the desire to return to, or restore, indigenous practices, beliefs, and cultural forms inhibited, destroyed, or outlawed by a colonizing power’ (Buchanan 2010). As Nicholas Startin has noted  (Startin 2015: 313), ‘the British Eurosceptic tradition is very much linked to the past and to a nostalgic attachment to a perceived, bygone era of a better Britain […] deeply couched in notions of sovereignty and identity’. However, Farage’s UKIP has pushed this nationalist feeling based on a seemingly glorious past and independence to the next level, adding the fear of an ‘Other’ in the form of Brussels as the elitist enemy and/or the immigrant as the coloniser. While the 2015 manifesto clearly stirs away from traditional radical right discourse, the party’s media strategy during the 2014 and 2015 campaign made clear that UKIP’s issue with immigration is not just ‘about space’  (UKIP 2015: 11). In fact, the numerous incidents which took place in the 2014 and 2015 campaigns have highlighted that UKIP’s discourse often verges on neo-racism, and at times even traditional racism. Farage himself has often been on the frontline, thus making UKIP’s assertions about rogue candidates unconvincing. During UKIP’s 2014 Spring conference, Farage  (in Sparrow 28 February 2014) declared that ‘in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable’ and that ‘this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren’, demonstrating clearly the threat posed by an outsider to a reified national identity. Four days before the European elections, having already declared on LBC  (LBC 16 May 2014) that he would be ‘concerned’ were a ‘group of Romanian men’ to move next door, Farage stressed further that ‘any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door’  (UKIP 18 May 2014). This essentialisation of a whole population on the basis of nationality or culture was a clear utterance of neo-racism:

a racism which has as its dominant theme not biological heredity, but the irreducibility of cultural differences; a racism which, at first sight, does not imply the superiority of certain groups or peoples over others, but “only” the noxiousness of the removal of borders, the incompatibility of ways of life and traditions  (Balibar 1997: 33)

This added to a series of other ‘gaffes’ culminating in the racist outbursts of Godfrey Bloom  (Mason 7 August 2013), Kerry Smith  (Mason 14 December 2014) and Rozanne Duncan  (Hull 2015) amongst others, as well as the departure of prominent supporters over UKIP’s lurch to the extreme right  (Thandi 13 May 2014) – something which Alan Sked  (Sked 26 May 2014 ) also deplored after he left the party he founded in 1993. Borrowing further from other European radical right parties, UKIP has also surfed the wave of Islamophobia, most notably when Farage attempted to capitalise on the tragic Charlie Hebdo events in France, declaring that ‘we have got no-go zones across most of the big French cities’ – the ‘we’ being of particular note here.

A populist party

Whatever your definition of populism, whether it is seen it as a style, discourse or thin ideology, UKIP’s recent campaigns clearly fall into this category. On the front page of the party’s 2015 manifesto  (UKIP 2015: 1), ‘real people’ are the largest phrase in Nigel Farage’s pledge in the background. These idealised ‘real people’ are associated with the concepts of ‘integrity’ and ’honesty’, standing in clear opposition to ‘a career political class’ and to immigration – the first of the ‘major issues of the day’  (UKIP 2015: 3). Under Farage’s leadership in particular, UKIP has taken advantage of the distrust most people have in political parties and the workings of democracy in the UK as well as Europe. Since 2010, respondents declaring that they ‘tend not to trust political parties’ have averaged 82%, compared to an average of 13.6% for those who ‘tend to trust’  (European Commission 2015). In 2012, Peter Kellner  (Kellner 2012) in a YouGov/University of Oxford survey, highlighted that while around two-thirds of the respondents in the England, Wales and Scotland ‘described Britain as a democratic country’ and that ‘Britain’s system is one of the best in the world’, less than 15% felt that the Westminster parliament does a good job on ‘representing the interests and wishes of people like you’. Such distrust and disenchantment in the workings of democracy, coupled with the economic uncertainty which came as a result of the crisis, have made contemporary British politics a fertile soil for a populist party like UKIP.

UKIP: disease or symptom?

Therefore, that UKIP, as a now typical radical right party appeals to the disenchanted and disaffected should not come as a surprise, nor should their relative success with part of the working class. Contrary to some common narratives in the UK, such trends are not new. Part of the working class has always been attracted to the radical right, and at best, only two-thirds of it ever voted for the left, leaving thus at least a third for the right  (Ipsos Mori 2010). Yet the hype around UKIP as an alternative to mainstream parties is dangerously misleading  (Mondon Forthcoming 2015). It presupposes that UKIP is a convincing alternative, while, in fact, as many of its radical right counterparts in the Europe, it has so far failed to break through its glass ceiling despite very fertile conditions and disproportionate mediatisation key to political success today. While the UK electorate is not immune to the Europe-wide disenchantment with politics, ‘only’ 8.3% of registered voters have turned to UKIP in the General Elections. While the electoral system may have played a part in forcing some potential UKIP supporters towards more parties more likely to have an impact in Westminster, Farage has failed to bring voters out of abstention in droves, demonstrating that it is not the alternative they are waiting for. Furthermore, abstention is largest within the working class loosely defined  (Ipsos Mori 2015),[1] UKIP’s so-called target electorate (57% turnout for categories D and E and 62% for C2 compared to 66% overall) – a similar trend to that in EU elections  (European Parliament November 2012). While UKIP is doing well amongst the working class (18%), its share of the vote in this category when taking abstention into account is in fact just over 10%, meaning that 9 out of 10 members of the working class do not find UKIP an appealing alternative.

Therefore, while the rise of UKIP is concerning, it is only a small part of the picture. If we are to take the issue of democracy seriously, UKIP should only occupy a marginal part in the debate about politics and the ways to reform our current democratic system, if indeed it can be reformed. Instead, closer attention should be paid to the vast majority of the electorate which votes or not, but on the whole agrees as to their distrust parties and politics in the narrow sense of the term. However, at present, UKIP, and the radical right in general, have been convenient decoys which have allowed politicians, commentators and academics alike to stray away from more ambitious questions about the very nature of democracy in the twenty-first century Europe.

[1] Categories C2, D and E in the Ipsos Mori poll – note that E also includes ‘state pensioners’ and ‘unemployed with state benefits only’ https://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1285_MediaCT_thoughtpiece_Social_Grade_July09_V3_WEB.pdf

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