The reality of Ukip has been obscured by a number of myths, with the aid of a helpful media. As I’ve suggested, one myth is that it’s picking up the majority of that protest vote of the disillusioned and dispossessed swilling around looking for a home. It’s not. Most people are just sitting on their hands.
The second myth is that it’s an anti-Establishment party. It’s a very strange anti-Establishment party whose leader is a former public schoolboy who worked in the finance sector. Or whose deputy chairman is a former MP thrown out by his voters, as a result of the blatant way he’d milked the public purse in the expenses scandal.
Or whose two recent high profile defectors were schooled at Charterhouse, Marlborough College and Oxford. And worked in the corporate and legal sectors before becoming MPs.
Those defectors from the far fringes of the Tory Party may turn out in the long run not to be such good news either. It exposes a third myth that Ukip is somehow a genuinely populist party that can appeal to right and left. Turns out it’s just an even more right-wing, more Eurosceptic, more socially conservative version of the Tories.
By anchoring itself in this way even more securely to the far right, Ukip ultimately seriously restricts any appeal to the more socially liberal, pro-government spending, welfarist centre of British society. This puts an upper limit on its potential vote.
To appeal to the soft centre, a genuinely populist party requires vaguer policies. Something like the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats got away with for decades before their spectacular implosion as a result of their embrace with the Tories. There were hints back in May that Farage was toying with a wider populism, allying Ukip’s core message of Europhobia and anti-immigration to centre-left concerns in order to help traditional Labour voters in the north of England make the jump.
Indeed, Ukip’s recent public statements appear to have dropped their former policy of privatising the NHS. This is now toned down in favour of something a lot vaguer. The problem they now have however is that this new stance is easily undermined by the Tory defections, which at least make it a lot less credible.
Ukip is left with its core anti-immigration message. This certainly resonates with a proportion of the white working class electorate in the former industrial regions. Many of these had been part of the Labour tribe but are now thoroughly pissed off by the way ‘New’ Labour took them for granted.
However, while making it possible to gain perhaps 15-20% of the vote in areas near districts with high immigrant numbers, it also makes it difficult to extend this core vote. Furthermore, it’s always liable to descend into a virulent racism that again alienates those soft centre, vaguely socially liberal voters.
In short, an anti-immigration strategy merely makes Ukip the latest, more respectable in the eyes of the media, version of the BNP. Ukip’s rise has in fact been at the expense of the BNP. Its core message is not that dissimilar. Just as the BNP bubble was burst at the 2010 election when it failed to make a breakthrough, so the Ukip bubble is likely to burst in 2015 if it also fails to break through. Having been raised up by the media, it’s vulnerable to the unrealistic expectations stoked up by the same media.
Relying on anti-immigration sentiment is ultimately a fragile strategy. It’s fragile because it’s easily co-opted by other parties. It wasn’t long after Ukip’s by-election victories that Tory MPs were queueing up to say the Government needs to be stronger on migration. They were soon followed by Labour joining the Ukip/Tory bidding war to promise more border guards and a clampdown on benefits.
It’s possible to be anti-immigration but not anti-immigrant, possible not to be keen on a suburban sprawl that will entail the building of 20 cities the size of Birmingham by the end of the century and not be a rabid racist. Some are groping towards a more principled position on immigration, avoiding the right’s fixation with culture and pointing to the real causes. Which are those corporate and business demands for ‘free’ movement of labour to guarantee cheap labour and discipline workers.
Of course, the established parties can express their concern. But for them to actually do something to tackle the ‘free’ labour market would require them to ditch their allegiance to globalism. The Con/Lab/Lib consensus can’t do this. But then neither can Ukip, which is just as wedded to a neo-liberal corporate theology. Even more so, now that it has Carswell and Reckless on board. This allows Tory politicians to claim a shared position – ‘vote Tory and get Ukip’.
This is exactly why it’s getting support from the corporate press as it doesn’t threaten the plutocrats who actually run things. Polls suggest its voters support stuff like re-nationalising the railways and higher taxes on the rich and are suspicious of big business. Yet, even were Ukip to begin to dabble with policies like these it would soon find its press support and financial backing disappearing.
So Ukip finds itself in an ideological cul-de-sac. It can still do very well as a vehicle for protest votes in by-elections and opinion polls but, given a quirky electoral system that rewards the old parties, would need to double its current polling figures to begin to sniff more than a handful of seats next May.
Locking itself to the far right and relying solely on an anti-immigration platform and an obsessive Europhobia, Ukip has little chance of attaining the levels of support needed. It’s also permanently vulnerable to the exposure of the myths that sustain it.
Time is running out. It has just six months before the election to push some more broadly acceptable social and economic policies. But doing this would open up disagreement among its own activists. The bubble will burst in the general election next May. The future is not purple. Though it may still be populist.