UKIP Makes a Play for the Working Class
Britain's far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant party is set for its first real showing in the May 7 general election.
STOCKPORT, Britain* — In 2006, David Cameron -- not yet the prime minister but an influential Conservative member of Parliament -- dismissed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as composed of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.” Nine years later, polling has the “fruitcakes” on course to become Britain’s third-largest party in Parliament after the May 7 general election -- and possibly even a coalition partner with Cameron’s Conservative Party.
STOCKPORT, Britain* — In 2006, David Cameron — not yet the prime minister but an influential Conservative member of Parliament — dismissed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as composed of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.” Nine years later, polling has the “fruitcakes” on course to become Britain’s third-largest party in Parliament after the May 7 general election — and possibly even a coalition partner with Cameron’s Conservative Party.
On a recent afternoon in Stockport, a town of 280,000 in northwest England, it was easy to see how the striking transformation took place. Steven Woolfe, a UKIP member of European Parliament (MEP), was campaigning for a seat in Westminster. Woolfe, an affable ex-barrister who says he took a 60 percent pay cut to take the job in Brussels, went door to door listening to Stockport residents’ complaints about the Labour-run local council and the Conservative-led coalition government in London. Woolfe wore chinos and a vest decked out in UKIP’s signature purple ribbons. Students from the local university and enthusiastic UKIP supporters, dressed in the kind of pheasant-shooting chic popularized by the young royals, accompanied Woolfe as he went door to door across a large housing development.
The UKIP group was welcomed warmly. The Stockport residents at home on an early weekday afternoon all had their own grievances and concerns. For the most part, they echoed the main themes of the election: high levels of immigration, the crumbling National Health Service (NHS), stagnant wages, and the sputtering economy.
Woolfe offered sympathies to a woman who said her son died in an NHS hospital and promised to see what he could do to help a man whose four children had been removed by local authorities “to a Muslim family” over allegations of sexual abuse. He engaged in discussions on the pressures immigration is putting on Britain — a signature issue for UKIP — but gently challenged outright xenophobia. He had lengthy conversations with those who said they hated the political process altogether, attempting to convince them that the “People’s Army,” as UKIP likes to refer to itself, is different from the established parties that have long dominated political life in Britain.
UKIP’s growth has been spurred by the collapse of living standards for those on the lower end of Britain’s dizzyingly unequal pay scales, anti-European Union sentiment, and skillful grassroots engagement with Britons disillusioned with the major political parties. UKIP has also seized on concerns about Britain’s role in the European Union. A poll in February found that only 45 percent of British voters want to remain part of the EU.
After the European elections in May 2014, UKIP, running on a platform of fighting the EU from within, became the largest British party in the European Parliament, with 24 MEPs. Now the party is hoping for a similarly impressive showing in the British election — success that has so far eluded it. UKIP still has only two members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster — both of whom defected from the Conservatives. This time around, the party is fielding 624 candidates across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, 66 more candidates than in 2010.
But in Britain’s first-past-the-post system, lots of votes doesn’t always translate into lots of seats. The highest number Woolfe would estimate that the party would win was eight of the 650 Westminster seats available, despite the fact that the most recent polls show UKIP is on course to capture up to 15 percent of the vote.
When it was formed in 1993, UKIP was the party of wealthier, Euroskeptic voters in the south of England and was focused on mostly winning over Conservatives who considered the Tories too soft on Europe. Since then, the party has been swelling its ranks by adopting a wider anti-immigration, nationalist agenda that places responsibility for Britain’s swelling number of immigrants on the EU’s open-borders policies.
In doing so, the party widened its base of supporters, gradually shifting into the optimistically broad radical party that professes to be “beyond” the politics of the left or the right. As Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin note in their 2014 book, Revolt on the Right, the sharpest increases in UKIP support in the 2004 European election — the first time UKIP came to the attention of Britain’s major parties — was in areas with higher concentrations of working-class voters.
In 2010, as immigration became the second-most important issue for British voters, the party shifted gears and began pushing for a ban on burqas and niqabs in public and private buildings as part of a drive to “restore British values.” It didn’t work: The party failed to make the waves it hoped and polled at only 3.1 percent, nowhere near enough to win an MP.
Since then, UKIP has made several changes to its manifesto — including supporting increased funding for Britain’s beloved but beleaguered National Health Service — that are intended to tap into discontent felt in working-class areas regarded as safe Labour seats. Of the top 15 seats where UKIP’s prospects are strongest, 12 are currently Labour seats, according to Ford and Goodwin’s analysis. They need voters from both major parties to swing their way.
Labour voters feel that their party has “betrayed working-class communities,” UKIP parliamentary hopeful John Bickley told supporters at a recent rally in Crewe, a northern English town that was once a hub for the auto industry and is currently represented by Labour. “As the minimum wage has become the maximum wage, they feel like they have been stabbed in the back by the Labour party.”
But it’s immigration, one of UKIP’s signature issues, that continues to animate many of the party’s supporters. On the campaign trail in Stockport, Woolfe — who is also the party’s spokesman for migration and financial affairs — was stopped twice to discuss immigration. A group of construction workers offering their support for the party said they refuse to work in London because the sites there are filled with bosses who “don’t speak English.” A man who worked as a painter and decorator complained that his business was down due to “the Poles.”
Government statistics show 300,000 of the 1 million migrants who have arrived in Britain over the past 10 years to work in low-skilled jobs are Polish. UKIP has pushed for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU. If the country exits the union, immigration from poorer EU countries like Poland would dry up.
Negative attitudes toward immigration have increased across the political spectrum since 1995, according to social attitudes surveys. But the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment has been most acute among voters who have less education, have fewer professional qualifications, and identify themselves as working class. Both the Conservatives and Labour have poor records on immigration as far as these groups are concerned: Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair oversaw the relaxation of immigration controls in 2004, while the current coalition government reneged on its promise to reduce the number of immigrants.
In its manifesto, the party has also called for a five-year moratorium on new work permits for unskilled workers and a return to pre-1997 immigration levels. As Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s deputy leader, told me, this would ensure “our lot” — British citizens — have a “fair chance” of getting jobs.
This rhetoric has struck a chord. Most of the doorstep conversations I observed in Stockport started with “I’m not racist, but …” followed by concerns over employment prospects, housing allocation, pressures on the NHS and schools, and reduced wages due to cheap immigrant labor.
UKIP’s anti-immigrant policies have gained it support from racist, far-right movements like Britain First and the English Defence League, but the party is now attempting to change its tone into one befitting a mainstream parliamentary opposition party. Woolfe, whose grandfather was African-American, is a key part of this realignment. He says he wants immigration policies that recognize that immigration is good for Britain, but the country needs “sensible controls.”
“I want to develop a gold-standard immigration policy for Britain that is based on merit, not race, religion, color, or creed,” he told me. “We are moving the immigration debate forward to make it safe and fair and into something other countries will want to emulate. Immigration is not about race; it is about space.”
Key to UKIP’s entrance into the mainstream has been the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, a garrulous former commodities trader turned demagogue, who has been touring Britain pitching the party’s platform. Many voters I met said they respected Farage for attempting to “talk common sense.” Farage has a visible public face: He enjoyed being pictured “down the pub” smoking a cigarette and has been touring pubs across the country as part of his election campaign.
UKIP is no longer a one-man party, though. The party is trying to emphasize its professionalism. It claims that its budget proposals — leaving the EU, nearly abolishing the UK’s foreign aid budget, taking those on minimum wage outside of taxation altogether, among others — are fiscally sound and have been independently verified by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
The party has also taken a page from the playbook of the Liberal Democrats, who currently comprise the third major party in Parliament (and a party that polls suggest will be obliterated come May 7). UKIP hopes that its road to Westminster will be via local councils, which are responsible for allocating government services to towns and cities. Dominating local councils, UKIP officials hope, will show that the party can be trusted.
“We have realized that councils are the Trojan horses of Westminster,” Nuttall told me at a recent event in Crewe. “We know the election night is going to be a great night for UKIP, but we have a 2020 vision: We will crack the dam in 2015, but we will smash that dam away in 2020.” The party is fielding 4,488 candidates in local council elections this year. UKIP has already been making steady gains in local elections: In 2010, the party won 7.9 percent of the vote, compared with 24.3 percent in 2013, according to Plymouth University’s Elections Centre.
But how UKIP’s newfound popularity will play out on the national stage remains to be seen. The Conservative Party has deflected questions over potential coalition-government plans, but Liberal Democrats have warned about the possibility of a government comprising the Conservatives, UKIP, and Northern Ireland’s staunchly conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
UKIP’s rise has been met with much consternation from the mainstream. The press has seized on the frequent allegations of racist and homophobic social media postings from the party’s candidates. One UKIP local council hopeful in Oldham, a large town near Manchester, is being investigated by police after racist comments about mixed-race marriages appeared on his social media account, apparently beneath a picture of two children holding monkeys. UKIP has said it is taking the matter “very seriously.”
Nuttall told me that some of the headlines (and they are frequent) were based on malicious campaigning by the other parties, which have “friends in high places” with the London-dominated media. UKIP’s rank and file hates the press — and Londoners. And many in the media don’t seem fond of the anti-immigrant party much, either.
But not everyone is worried about the coverage. “The harder the media hit us, the better the public like us. When someone is scared, they hit out very hard, and the establishment is scared,” Blair Smillie, a UKIP official in Wales, told me.
Smillie’s great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Labour Party 115 years ago. But he thinks the current Labour Party has betrayed its founding principles and doesn’t stand up for “the normal working-class people.” That’s why he joined UKIP.
“We are a threat because we are calling for a revolution in politics — not a socialist revolution like my grandfather led, but a people’s revolution to try and bring this country back under the control of the people again.”
*CORRECTION, May 2, 2015: Reporting for this story took place in Stockport, not Salford, as the story initially stated. (Return to reading.)
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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