The threat of a major Ukip breakthrough in this month’s European elections will have sent shivers down the spines of many last week.
The racist party is now polling at 27 percent, only marginally behind Labour’s 30 percent, with the Tories trailing in a distant third. Ukip is now gunning for disaffected Labour voters—and the issue of immigration is its weapon of choice.
To ram the point home party leader Nigel Farage launched Ukip’s election billboard campaign with a tour that included Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle.
That a party with no Westminster MPs and only nine MEPs in the European Parliament can dominate media coverage of a national election is remarkable.
Farage hopes to spread support far beyond the Tory right that initially nurtured his party.
A survey for the Financial Times newspaper last month revealed that 44 percent of those planning to vote Ukip in the European elections are previous Tory voters.
Ukip calculates that it has now bagged about as big a proportion of the traditional middle class Tory vote as it is going to get. In order to make the “political earthquake” that Farage brags about he must enter the Labour heartlands.
But it would be a mistake to see these strongholds as being made up exclusively of Labour voters and to take any Ukip success there necessarily as proof that Labour’s base is cracking.
Ukip can make headway in these areas with or without significant numbers of former Labour voters—and in the process they can accelerate the rate at which mainstream politics is being polluted by racism.
Even in the most staunchly working class areas there has always been a core of Tory voters, and some who have been attracted to outright fascist parties, such as the National Front in the 1970s and the British National Party (BNP) more recently.
The Easington constituency in County Durham is an example. This former mining area has one of Labour’s biggest majorities and at the last election the party won just under 60 percent of the vote.
But even here the combined right wing vote, of 13.7 percent for the Tories, 6.6 percent for the Nazi BNP and 4.7 percent for the hard right Ukip, came to 25 percent.
This is not just a recent picture. In February 1974, Tory prime minister Edward Heath went to the country in the wake of a successful miners’ strike—and still 28 percent of Easington voters plumbed for him.
So, as Farage takes his campaign into northern English cities his main aim is to monopolise the right wing vote there.
He hopes that when this is combined with his suburban and rural bases it will be enough to win seats and make him and his policies the big story on election night.
Labour election planners react to Ukip’s plans with utter complacency. They calculate that Farage’s main impact in the election will be to damage the Tory vote and thereby allow a lacklustre Ed Miliband to claim victory.
For this reason, Labour’s front bench refuses to launch a full scale attack on Ukip.
They dismiss the possibility that widespread disaffection with the entire political class could find an expression in Farage’s anti-establishment, “man of the people” persona.
But there is already some evidence that Ukip will pick up votes from less wealthy people who feel marginalised and have not voted previously.
By narrowly focussing on the potential of Ukip to damage the Tories in the Euro elections, Labour’s strategists ignore the cancerous effects of racism upon the working class.
More than a decade of the anti-Muslim racism that accompanied Tony Blair’s “war on terror” has combined with the sweeping fear of immigration that accompanied the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. The resulting mixture is today more than the sum of its toxic parts.
Mainstream politicians first vied with each other to see who would be tougher on refugees, and then moved on to immigration in general. Together they accelerated the process after the 2010 election—an election in which Ukip received just 3.1 percent of the vote despite standing 558 candidates.
Labour leaders now regularly claim that the previous government allowed far too many migrants into Britain and that this is a key reason why they lost votes. “We were too slow to listen to your justified concerns,” pleads Miliband.
Rather than looking at how the last Labour government helped stoke racial divisions, Miliband says that it’s the voters that are fed up of immigration who are driving the debate and that his party is merely responding.
But by accepting that migration is a “problem” Labour has bolstered the mainstream consensus that immigration must be restricted.
The right wing newspapers and commentators respond by saying that Labour now accepts what they have argued all along—only now their voices grow ever shriller and more confident.
And, those on the hard right whose hatred is not restricted to those wanting to come to Britain, but extends to those who have been here for decades, are given a boost they could only have dreamed of.
By this route Ukip has been transformed from a joke party into one that poses a sharp threat. It came second in the last five by-elections it contested. And as it has grown more successful it has dragged the politics of immigration and racism even further to the right.
According to the British Social Attitudes survey, the percentage of people who think that immigration should be reduced “a lot” jumped from 39 percent in 1995 to 51 percent in 2011.
It is likely to have increased still further since. Even 74 percent of Labour voters now think that immigration was too high under the last government. And so the vicious circle of racism begins again.
These attitudes have an effect on the labour movement as a whole.
Racism not only divides workers, making them see each other as competitors for jobs and services, it offers a “psychological wage” to the white poor, a lie that somehow their pale complexion gives them access to an elite club.
Racists would have it that even if you have little money and a crap job, at least you are lucky enough to have been born British and therefore superior.
Racism tells the “British worker” that he or she has more in common with their “British boss” than with workers who have migrated to Britain. In turn, migrants are led to believe that their interests are separate from the British, and that they must fight alone.
The result is that notions of class solidarity are weakened, struggle is impeded, and the ruling class emerges stronger. This embattled sense of class is important not only to the unions, but also to the Labour Party itself.
Millions of people vote Labour out of class loyalty. They rightly see politics as divided between two main parties, one of which represents our rulers and the rich, and the other which represents workers and the poor.
But the more the Labour leadership help break down notions of class with talk of “One Nation Labour” and their pandering to racist division the more they erode the very foundations upon which their vote is based.
That’s why Labour’s refusal to engage seriously with those who want to fight against Ukip and racism is a mistake, even on its own narrow terms.
Whether or not Labour’s mistakes over Ukip and racism will hit them hard at this election remains to be seen. Yet it is already clear that both are doing damage. But it would be wrong to think that the increased hostility to migrants and the electoral gains that Ukip are expected to make are irreversible.
When workers fight in large numbers the potential to prove in practice who are our real friends and who are our enemies exists as never before. Because workers in struggle are reliant upon each other, even well-sown divisions become vulnerable.
That’s why socialists and anti-racists make it a priority to bring black and white, migrants and non-migrants together in solidarity in workplaces and onpicket lines.
We believe that people’s own lived experiences can be more powerful than even long standing prejudices.
The hundreds of thousands of health workers, local government workers and teachers who are now gearing up for action can set an example of the power our class has when united—a power that can wipe the stupid grin from Farage’s face.
- Immigration: the myths spread to divide us new edition of pamphlet by Charlie Kimber (£2)
- Say it loud: Marxism and the fight against racism edited by Brian Richardson (£9.99)
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk