With the emergence of Ukip, Britain now has a racist, populist party influencing political debate, as do a number of countries across Europe. But what kind of political force is Ukip? Understanding its nature is vital if we are to successfully challenge it.
Populist parties claim to look at the interests of the population, not just the establishment or the elite. Ukip combines anti-immigrant racism with a populist pitch that claims to represent the anger of the ordinary “man in the street” against a corrupt political elite.
It presents itself as an anti-establishment outsider and not part of the discredited political game. In doing so Ukip looks to hide its own ties to parts of the establishment. The party is led by former City trader Nigel Farage and backed by a clutch of multimillionaires like Paul Sykes and Stuart Wheeler.
The core of its leadership and millionaire backers are hard neoliberals who support free market policies. Farage presents Ukip as an empty vessel that can attract people from all classes who can project their hopes and fears onto it. So in the recent election campaign Farage was careful to avoid any discussion of Ukip’s economic policies.
The glue that keeps its cross-class alliance together is racism. Ukip seeks to turn bitterness at the crises that threatens to tear people’s lives apart into blaming immigrants and foreigners.
It redirects people’s anger away from the powerful towards scapegoating the oppressed and powerless.
It draws on the relentless attacks on asylum seekers, immigrants and Muslims pushed by mainstream parties, Labour included, and echoed in much of the media. Ukip is the ugly child of the establishment.
Racist populist parties include Ukip, the Danish People’s Party and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. They are different to fascist parties such as the British National Party (BNP), the French Front National (FN) or Golden Dawn in Greece.
It is certainly true that the BNP, like Ukip, has used racism to try and build support. From the late 1990s onward the BNP looked to emulate the “Euro-fascist” strategy adopted by the more successful FN. This involved playing down overt fascist symbols and language.
Instead, the BNP latched onto forms of racism deemed legitimate by mainstream parties and media. So open antisemitism was out, but anti-Muslim racism was in. Tapping into “respectable” forms of racism could then be used to build electoral support to boost the credibility of the fascists and overcome their isolation.
Such fascist parties can end up looking very similar to parties like Ukip. Across Europe they often fall out among themselves about how respectable they need to be.
But at their core a group of hardened fascists keeps control. They are not simply racist. Their real aim is to destroy parliamentary democracy and smash all working class organisation. Racism and elections are, ultimately, the means to the creation of an extra-parliamentary street army capable of this task.
This is what Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was able to do in Germany with its 400,000 storm troopers in 1933. Populist parties such as Ukip use anti-immigrant racism to establish themselves within the framework of parliamentary institutions.
Ukip isn’t out to build a core of street fighters that can at some point launch a battle to control the streets. So is it just another right wing parliamentary party, much like the Tories? There is some overlap. Ukip after all emerged in the 1990s in the wake of the splits inside the Tories over Europe. It built its initial base by attracting former Tory voters.
In some ways Ukip is a concentrated expression of the worst aspects of the Tories—its racism, nationalism and xenophobia. The Tories have of course been willing at times to play the race card to try and gain support.
Margaret Thatcher infamously said in 1978 that people are “afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. William Hague in 2001 and Michael Howard in 2005 put racism at the centre of their election campaigns, although both lost.
But for the Tories, racism is just one part of a wider agenda for maintaining class rule and managing British capitalism. So Thatcher had a broader programme that centred on attacking unions and loosening state control of the economy.
But mobilising racist sentiment is the central dynamic in Ukip’s current appeal and growth. One poll showed that 92 percent of Ukip voters agreed that “mass immigration is making parts of the UK unrecognisable and like a foreign land.”
Ukip supporters list immigration as a greater concern even than the European Union. So 74 percent of Ukip voters place immigration as their key concern, about double the level among Tory voters. Ukip’s rise is in part due to the suffering and insecurity created by the economic crisis. But it is also able to exploit the decline of the old mainstream parties.
Decades of neoliberal attacks—by both main parties, and now from the Lib Dems too—have accelerated the decline of the once dominant established parties. Early in the postwar boom Labour and the Tories regularly won 90 to 95 percent of all votes cast at general elections between them.
By 2010 this had fallen to just 65 percent and on a much lower turnout. Both Labour and the Tories have also shrivelled as mass parties that once had deep roots across society. This has created a much greater space for new political forces to break through.
And concessions from the mainstream parties to racism have given Ukip space to grow. It has taken much of its support from the Tories, although it is increasingly looking to win over more Labour supporters.
The solutions used to push back the BNP will not work against Ukip. Above all, that campaign meant creating a united front around a single question—hatred of Nazis. Relentless mass mobilisations to confront the BNP and expose it as fascist have driven away much of its softer support and isolated the fascist hardcore.
Ukip presents a more complex challenge—and its ability to enter the mainstream is greater. Taking up the question of immigration will play a much more central role in combating Ukip, as will challenging its economic agenda.
And not everyone who agrees with opposing the BNP will agree on all these issues. But they can’t be ducked if we are to successfully push back Ukip’s appeal to workers.
The racist policies followed by the mainstream create monsters such as Ukip, which they then use as an excuse to move further right. This will only serve to increase racist attacks and deepen divisions among workers.
Already we can see this at work. On the same day that Ukip won the European elections, home secretary Theresa May announced plans to halve the amount of time migrants from the EU can claim unemployment benefit. Ed Miliband too has further pandered to racism by promising Labour will tighten immigration controls.
He recently echoed Farage’s bogus claims that many immigrants don’t want to learn English. Far from eroding Ukip’s appeal, the result will be to legitimise it and further boost the confidence of racists in every workplace.
And by increasing the racist poison in society this will also create a favourable climate for the Nazis in Britain to rebuild. Forging a new campaign that can draw together anti-racists to campaign on the street and protest at Ukip events is an urgent task.
Centrally, it will mean challenging Ukip’s racism and its lies about immigration. It will also expose its pro-big business agenda. We have to make Ukip toxic for millions of workers across Britain and break its momentum.
Say It Loud! Marxism and the fight against racism
Edited by Brian Richardson (£9.99)
lImmigration: The Myths Spread to Divide Us
A Socialist Worker pamphlet by Charlie Kimber (£2)
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