Blocking Farage’s Royal Road

by Adam Blanden

Adam Blanden will do anything if it means that Nigel Farage will lose in South Thanet – even canvass for the Labour Party.

First published: 05 May, 2015 | Category: Politics, The Right

I have no illusions about the British Labour Party.  But Nigel Farage is leading in the polls in South Thanet and the alternative to getting out the vote in support of Labour is not only a seat for Farage, but the prospect of a UKIP safe seat as the major parties beat a retreat.  Last Sunday in Ramsgate, in front of a large crowd of activists, the writer Owen Jones put his argument for backing Labour succinctly: 'It's better to be arguing with a Labour government than fighting a Tory one.' I am voting for Labour – in fact, volunteering for them – with a great deal more uncertainty.  I can't justify their Tory-aping policies – especially on austerity and the deficit, never mind immigration – but like so many others, I feel I am faced with a catastrophic alternative.

There are unaffiliated groups in South Thanet doing wonderful things: the indefatigable Thanet Stand Up to UKIP have shown what a sustained protest campaign can achieve in local politics.  Farage looks significantly closer to his true, grubby self thanks to their efforts.  But the centre of attention remains the battle between the major parties.  The national Labour party have been pretty unhelpful, to the extent that local candidate Will Scobie recently reached out to Tony Blair to ask for a thousand pounds.  No doubt Blair can afford it, but the plea is nevertheless a symbol of how lean the times are.  Scobie has run an impressive campaign – propelled by the hard work of volunteers who see this election as a chance to give the boot to UKIP once and for all.  But nationally a different story has been written, one in which Farage's victory is a foregone conclusion.  After all, he has worked for it, Westminster and the establishment media must be thinking.  The finance-dominated nature of our electoral democracy dictates that, when victory looks tough, funding dries up.  The way to Farage's victory has been cleared by an establishment which is, if leery of UKIP as such, resigned to Farage's permanent presence at the margins.  Why not let him join the big boys' club at long last?  This is why the onus has fallen so much on the grassroots.  Scobie claims he has a hundred volunteers coming out a week.  Thanet Stand Up to UKIP, meanwhile, have been relentless in organising Love Music Hate Racism events, flyering across the entire constituency, and running stalls almost daily.

You do not mobilise people on a no vote in a general election, however.  Time and again at Thanet SUTU stalls we are asked: If not UKIP, then who?  I tell the truth: I am voting Labour to keep Farage out.  And I am willing to go a long way to make sure they do.  Most in Thanet SUTU are not Labour supporters and the group insists as a whole on its impartiality.  However, this revolutionary socialist is canvassing on sleepy Broadstairs estates and attempting to stir the Labour vote.  Suffice to say, this does not come naturally to me.  Thankfully there is little real talk of policy.  In fact, there is little talk at all.  But at least we are getting the message across: there is a viable alternative to both UKIP and the Tories' candidate (and ex-UKIP founder member) Craig Mackinlay.  The polls are extremely close.  After all my queasiness about pounding the pavements for a Labour Party I frankly do not believe in, I am starting to think Scobie can pull this off.  Consider me a sort of sincere entryist. 

Thanet: Farage's Royal Road?

How did it come to this?   Accompanying the consensus that Thanet is Farage's royal road to Parliamentary acceptability has been an agreement about Thanet voters.  Thanet is the archetype, it is said, of the 'left behind' hinterlands.  It bleeds nostalgia and naff racism, London journalists tell us.  Its populace angrily rejects liberal common sense because it has not been able to participate in the progressive fruits of a multicultural society.  Farage, it was said, was coming for the people of Thanet, and they would receive him gratefully.  There was nothing anybody could do to stop it.  This, it turns out, was so much libidinal class projection: London saw in Thanet a bogeyman, a phantom 'white working class' coming to take its revenge; a sort of anti-Zeitgeist, the existence of which the media had themselves postulated, and subsequently made the driving force of UKIP's rise.  This while sending fleets of journalists, cameras, and profilers, to attend to every whim of this fringe party, turning Britain's 'left behind' into a frightening political force, while practically giving Farage a free ride.

The theory of a 'left behind' lingering on Britain's forlorn coasts and in its most dejected suburbs originates with Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in their book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (2014)For an analysis aimed at critiquing the UKIP phenomenon, these two political anoraks hew surprisingly close to the party line: Britain, they report, is increasingly divided between confident, outward looking cosmopolitans and increasingly bitter, resentful 'left behinds'.'Both Labour and the Conservatives now regard winning support from middle-class voters as more important than appealing to these struggling left behind voters...  The emergence of UKIP changes the game.'[1] Ford and Goodwin collapse the different phenomena underlying UKIP's base into a single, frothing pot of bitterness and bile.  They also conclude that UKIP's supporters are not Tory squires, but ex-Labour working class.  Hence it is Labour, not the Conservatives, who have most to fear from the rise of UKIP.  'Left behind' voters choose UKIP because they are poorer, worse educated, and don't know any better, this theory suggests.  Their attachment to UKIP is an inevitable result of their envy of others. 

The nonsense of this argument should be quickly apparent to anyone who lives in these places.  To the extent that any party commands a mass following, it will have tendrils in the working class.  The Conservatives historically commanded large chunks of the working-class vote, especially among older or retired skilled workers.  We should recall here UKIP's roots in the libertarian, eurosceptic Tory right (with its founder, Alan Sked an LSE professor and its current leader a former commodities broker).  The leadership is clearly composed of small and medium business supporting ex-Tories.

Why do working-class people really choose UKIP?  I met a UKIP-voting couple during an anti-Farage day of action in Ramsgate.  They were angry – principally at the anti-UKIPers, but also at the media, the political elites, and most importantly, at their bosses.  They insisted they weren't racist (everybody does) and were "all about numbers, not colours.  These Poles came over and my boss could just ditch me.  I'm unemployed now," the woman told me, "and all these Poles have got jobs." I asked her why her boss was able to employ Polish workers for less than her, and why wages hadn't risen.  "Because they're capitalists.  They don't want to give a penny away." Her tone suggested this was glaringly obvious – so much so that it didn't warrant mentioning.  But perhaps it is precisely this unspoken fact that should be addressed in the lives of working-class UKIP-voters.  The problem is there is almost no public discourse about wages and bosses for anybody to turn to.As it has become a 'mass' party, UKIP has radically changed not only its policies, but also how it represents itself to voters.  Its ability to pose as an 'outsider' force from the Westminster mainstream is crucial here.  In Ramsgate or in Sandwich, it is not policy that people like, but the ability of Farage to 'speak his mind.' One NHS worker told me that, while he hated Thatcher, she 'told it like it was, and Farage does the same.' While these might appear contradictory, they are – temporarily – perfectly politically manageable.  For the time being, UKIP awkwardly straddles a divide, re-articulating racist and inward-looking political motifs as well as more pro-working class corporatist and protectionist ones.  The brutal reality of their policies matters little.

Working-class ideology does not stem from 'material conditions' in any direct sense, but from how the class presently makes sense of the world through a  constructed discourse and history.  UKIP is having some success at tapping into deep parts of that history.  Time and again, it is immigration which is used by UKIP to tell a story about the British people to themselves, a story of national heroism which is now being 'betrayed' by liberal political elites. 

UKIP themselves didn't construct the elements of that story, nor did they invent the images of immigrants that dominate our media.  UKIP's success is partly enabled by the poisonous attitudes of our political, cultural and economic elites towards the low-skilled, free-moving, foreign-born sections of the population – those they exploit at will and then abuse in public.  It is, in the end, the British media which is actively anti-immigrant, while chiding working-class people for falling for images they themselves produce.  British popular opinion is full of lies and hypocrisy not because the uneducated are inherently prone to racism, but because negative stereotyping is everywhere.  UKIP is not Thanet's sickness but the national media's, at once their fantasy and their nightmare come true.  All of this phantasmatic activity comes, unfortunately, at the cost of Thanet's – and the country's – working and poorer people.

In the end, what is causing Thanet's immiseration?  This is a story with many culprits.  Thanet District Council has its own, peculiar history of corruption, petty and otherwise.  Yet it is quite possible that the inter-penetration of finance and national politics in the last thirty-five years have contributed to this local corruption.  There is the globalisation of jobs (the area was recently ditched by Pfizer losing 2400), but more damaging has been the consignment of entire communities to a 'can't-compete-won't-compete' dustbin by the bubble-fuelled capital.  There is the slow decay of the housing-stock, with people left to fend for themselves in overcrowded, cheaply converted B'n'Bs, as social housing went unbuilt and council houses were sold off.  Yet for all this obvious injustice, the story of Thanet has the mainstream wallowing in its own lies: for the big media outlets, the people of Thanet are provincial racists who get what they deserve

Immigration and the Media

The Guardian recently found that British people believe the net impact of immigration on the economy, jobs, social values, the NHS, housing, welfare, and crime were all negative, often by large majorities.  This situation is becoming dangerous.  And of course it is based entirely on lies.  UCL research shows that European migrants (a particular victim of UKIP bullying) contribute £20 billion to the economy overall.  To my surprise, I am told by Thanet SUTU that there are 'good Kippers'.  In fact, I meet one.  He enthuses at me about UKIP's brownfield building plans, their promises to make big corporations pay and to not privatise the NHS.  He says this quite happily in sight of an ex-National Front heavy, who blocks the entrance to UKIP's very 'exclusive' public meetings around the town.  As said ageing skinhead eyeballs me from across the pavement, the 'good Kipper' studiously avoids all talk of immigrants, preferring instead to bemoan Ricardian effects on rents by processes of 'overpopulation.' This reminds me of something the decidedly less pleasant Tory columnist Peter Hitchens announced on BBC TV recently: UKIP is not anti-immigrant, but anti-immigration.  At a stretch, this may technically be true; but they certainly follow a readymade anti-immigrant playbook.  While Hitchens – like so many of Britain's elites – abhors the supposed attack on European, Christian culture fed by mass immigration, it is much more the economy than high culture that the majority of Britons fear for.  As already mentioned, these fears are publicly constructed, and are all built on easily peddled lies.   

What has made the media so prone to stereotyping?  A possible answer lies in the traditional media's structural disintegration, retold in Nick Davies' account of the enormous corruption and illegality of the British media elite, Hack Attack (2014)The neoliberal industrial model applied to print journalism – busting unions; monopolisation by moguls; intensification of labour – has led to massive sloppiness in the trade.  Articles are not researched.  Claims are not verified.  PR cables are printed wholesale.  'The vast bulk of [Rupert] Murdoch's news output, including the huge majority of any falsehood and distortion, is simply the spontaneous product of his highly commercialised newsroom.'[2]  A spontaneous recognition of power by power has taken place between the media and politicians, resulting in such novel social reactionaries as the infamous 'Chipping Norton set' – which contains everyone from Rupert Murdoch to David Cameron.  Their inherent sense of personal superiority filters out into the world over which they preside.  No doubt, once safely ensconced in the Commons, Farage will be keen to lower the number of visits he makes to his windy constituency, the better to lavish his attentions on these bigger fish.  It will be a kind of homecoming.

In the context of this progressive degeneration of British journalism (under the pressures of increasingly destructive market competition and dwindling paper sales), immigrants have become an easily exploited 'folk devil.'  But there is also an international element: as western governments have brutalised innocent people abroad (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, among others), global violence has spread.  Rather than blame those gung-ho governments, our media and our official academia prefer to blame the victims of those wars – immigrants and refugees – for the violent political reactions against them.  Muslims, we are told by serious sources, see 'the UK as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society...  increasingly divided about its history'[3], and so on and on.  This obsession with 'our history' and its unravelling is no softer, really, than Farage's story about immigration.  Yet it has found a home among policy makers, academics, and most significantly, the media.  Tormented by fears of a state and society in collapse, working people are buying into this set of cultural myths.  The result is a society unable to see the ugliness of Farage's complaints about 'health tourism', even as seven hundred refugees and migrants are found dead off the coast of Tripoli. 

Ending UKIP

The ambition of the radical left should be to destroy UKIP, not simply to prevent Farage's election.  In a grim inversion of the popular front, Farage's radicals are increasingly operating within the power bloc as a small cog turning the wheels of opinion formation in a much larger whole.  UKIP is metastasising from symptom to cause.  This 'unpopular front' is surprisingly cohesive: Labour, too, have promised a tighter immigration policy.  Yet for there to be any chance of Labour changing tack – or rather of them moving to support the protection of workers regardless of their national background – UKIP must be stopped.  At this very late stage, with the situation so deteriorated, tactical support for Labour is my desperate, last-ditch effort at damage limitation.  The only question at this point is whether or not Farage can be embarrassed, along with the mainstream media.  This symbolic victory may tip the balance against UKIP.  It could marginalise the radical, anti-immigrant right.  That, however, is a great deal to hope for.  Farage is too acceptable to too many people for him to be easily rejected at the polls.  He has already been elevated to a status of swollen celebrity – relative to his small national polling numbers – by the obedient media.      

'He won't win, darling,' I was reassured by a woman – possibly in her mid-sixties – who opened the door to me as I went to post a flyer through her letterbox.  'He's too ugly,' she told me.  'Women vote on looks.  Now, that David Cameron.  To a woman of a certain age...' She looked to the middle distance.  I didn't know if this was good or bad news for Thanet.  By political standards, Will Scobie probably counts as a looker.  I will take what succour I can from that. 

Adam Blanden is a blogger and contributor to Dissent Magazine, Red Pepper, and New Left Project, among others.  Follow him @adam_blanden.              

[1]  Ford and Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, 2014, Kindle location: pp.491-500.

[2] Nick Davies, Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch (London: Random House, 2015), p.177.

[3] Prins and Salusbury, 'Risk, Threat and Security: The Case of the United Kingdom', quoted in Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror (London: Verso Books, 2014), p.81.

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