It was only a few months ago that professor John Curtice’s blunt summary of the council elections captured a spectacularly low ebb in the fortunes of Ukip: “It was a night in which big swings were rare — apart from a collapse in the Ukip vote.”
Curtice noted that this collapsed vote seemed to have swung disproportionately behind the Tories, continuing the trend from the 2017 council elections. Before the Brexit vote in 2016, the party managed to win 12.6 percent of the vote in the general election — around four million votes. Yet in the 2017, post-Brexit, general election the Ukip vote dropped to just 1.8 percent.
Before this year’s council elections in England, Ukip had already dropped to 241 local council seats from the 494 it had after the 2015 election. This year it lost another 123 council seats!
Ukip’s general secretary at the time, Paul Oakley, brushed off the catastrophic election results, saying, “Think of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. It comes along and it causes disruption, and then it goes dormant. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Our time isn’t finished because Brexit is being betrayed.”
It may have sounded ridiculous at the time, but with recent events it takes on a more worrying tone. Since the May elections, there have been heady and disturbing developments that are moving at a fast pace. Most notably, we’ve experienced the emerging far-right street movement galvanised around ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson and reflected in the growth of the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), the split into the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), and now developing into the Free Tommy movement focussed on demanding Robinson’s release at his trial on 27 September.
With Gerard Batten now at Ukip’s helm, after its seventh change in leader in less than 18 months, Ukip has been actively courting some of the most rabid elements in a growing milieu of far-right forces coalescing in Britain. He has spoken, and in vile Islamophobic terms, on the recent alarmingly large street mobilisations led by fascists at the the top of the DFLA and Free Tommy movement. Batten is essentially bringing a message to them — “Let Ukip be the electoral wing of your new movement.”
At Robinson’s “Free Speech” rally in May, Batten told the crowd, “If you want to defend your country then you have to organise politically.” On the 15,000-strong Free Tommy rally in June, Batten invited the fascists and racists to “join, support and vote Ukip”.
Meanwhile a number of YouTube alt-right figures — such as Count Dankula and Sargon of Akkad — have aligned with Ukip as the electoral expression of a wider project that is seeing the interaction of a toxic swirl of far-right forces. Figures from the US-based far-right website InfoWars have joined Ukip, as well as donating large sums to Robinson’s campaign.
Ukip membership has risen recently but still remains at half its peak of nearly 46,000 in 2015. It has risen by 15 percent in a month, according to “insiders”. July saw nearly 3,200 new members. Senior Ukip members say they believe many people are returning from the Tories.
While Batten has turned to whipping up Islamophobia and aligning with Robinson’s supporters in an attempt to win this movement to voting Ukip, there is clearly an argument in the party that the focus should be purely on Brexit, and a worry that Batten’s move is going to change the nature of Ukip. “You’ll probably have two parties in one,” one leading Ukip figure complained. “Those following Gerard’s views and the people there for Brexit and the Chequers deal.”
The backdrop to all this is two-fold. On the one hand, there’s the Trump effect. On the other there’s the volatility fuelled by a profound crisis of the political establishment — and the instability of the British state is at the centre of that, intensified by Brexit. This issue is amplified by the return of the Indy movement in Scotland pressuring the SNP to use its mandate for a second referendum, and the questions thrown up around the Irish border.
The government is in a vice, with pressure from all sides. It is hamstrung, limping on without calling an election because of the fatal threat of a Corbyn-led Labour government. Despite the fever-pitch level of the attempts to undermine and discredit Corbyn, Labour is still holding up in the polls. But the polarisation that is continuing to intensify, and the vicious way in which the Tories are ratcheting up racism in the face of such a crisis, means that what we do as socialists and anti-racists is paramount.
The positive transformation Labour experienced in the last general election came out of the combatative mass mobilisation of the movement behind anti-austerity and anti-racist policies. To beat back the far-right, both on the streets and electorally, we need the same kind of mass mobilisation.
The Trump effect can feel like someone has given a global megaphone to the racists and the far-right. Trump is using that megaphone very decisively to normalise abhorrent extreme right views and roll back the ideological gains of movements against racism, sexism, and for LGBT+ rights. We now have a president of the most powerful country in the world fuelling and giving confidence to growing far-right and fascist forces, from Britain to across Europe, where the fascists have made electoral gains with terrifying consequences.
It is no coincidence that when far-right thugs attacked Bookmarks the socialist bookshop in August, they carried pro-Trump signs. And it wasn’t too much of a surprise to learn that a Ukip candidate was among them. Ukip is currently involved in local mobilisations where it has been joining forces with the DFLA and Britain First.
But Trump can also have a unifying impact for the left. The incredible 250,000-strong demonstration against Trump’s visit in July was a beautiful beacon of hope, reflecting the huge anti-racist sentiment in this country, and for this reason it demoralised the various elements of the far-right.
In that context, Boris Johnson’s disgusting, and very deliberate, comments on the niqab fed confidence back into those forces. With the Tories in tatters, right wingers in the party are, like Batten, making overtures to win that far-right street movement behind them electorally.
With the situation so volatile, it’s not clear whether Johnson or Ukip are going to benefit from their attempts to court fascists and racists, but it is a real danger that could strengthen the far-right. Every time the likes of Johnson attack the Muslim community, they fan flames that spread quickly to a direct rise in racist attacks.
Scandals and blunders
The crisis at the top of the establishment is going to continue and deepen. Following a period of decline, collapse and a string of resignations, scandals and blunders, at the very least what we are seeing from Ukip under Batten’s leadership is a strategy out of that vacuum. Ukip is now clearly looking to become the electoral expression of the growth of the far-right in Britain. It also hopes, as Oakley’s analogy made clear, to mop up disillusioned voters and supporters from the Tory party.
There is a real threat that the far-right forces coalescing could breathe oxygen into Ukip and revive its corpse; that the dormant disease could resurface. But this is not a static question. First, the volatility in the situation could mean that the growth of the far-right expresses itself elsewhere than through a resurgence of Ukip. Its relative boost in members last month could lead to a split depending on how far its racist Brexiteer wing is willing to accommodate the more fascist elements being courted by Batten.
More fundamentally, what we do as an organised anti-racist movement, and as supporters of Corbyn, can have a decisive effect in turning the tide. The return of a large-scale, fascist-led street movement is scary to witness. The rise in Islamophobic scapegoating, and the vile nature in which it is being used by the far-right, can send a shivering echo of dark times in history. But as a movement we must also keep our heads, and develop a strategy to stop the rise of the far-right.
We are experiencing a growth in far-right forces in a polarised situation, and shouldn’t forget the strength of anti-racist sentiment in this country, reflected in the anti-Trump movement, through support for refugees, and through a pride in multiculturalism.
From union conferences to street stalls there is clearly a thirst across a significant layer in our communities to do something now to fight racism and the far-right, and that mood goes far wider than the existing organised left. Sooner or later the far-right is going to have to try and enter our communities. Robinson’s supporters may get the numbers out in Whitehall, but what would happen if they tried to do so in Tower Hamlets, or any of our multicultural communities? The answer to that question depends what we do to stop them, how deeply we dig into our communities, workplaces, and colleges to mobilise a mass anti-racist movement that can blow them out of the water.
There has been a lot of recent discussion, particularly in the pages of the Guardian, following John McDonnell’s call for a mass anti-racist movement in the spirit of the Anti Nazi League. Stand Up To Racism, supported by Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism, has now called a national unity demonstration against fascism and racism for 17 November. Significantly, it is backed by McDonnell, as well Diane Abbott and a host of politicians, trade union leaders, faith leaders, and prominent campaigners.
They are also backing the call for counter mobilisations if Tommy Robinson is released and the Free Tommy movement tries to march. And they are backing the international conference against racism and fascism on 20 October, which will be a key organising space to draw together our forces to take on the rise of the far-right here in Britain and also internationally.
A mass demonstration of tens of thousands out to oppose racism and fascism, with the Labour leadership — which should be proud of its anti-racist track record — confidently at its head and a carnival style atmosphere that draws in music and culture behind mass numbers on the streets can have a defining effect in such a volatile moment as this one.
If Ukip’s leaders are seeking to resurrect the party back from the dead by feeding off the growth of vile fascist and racist forces, let’s build the kind of movement that can stop them in their tracks and boot the lot of them back into the dustbin of history where they belong.
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