For the first time in 100 years, neither the centre right Conservatives nor centre left Labour Party won a nation election in Britain. The triumph of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Parliament poll was truly an earthquake in British politics. It could easily be mistaken for a surge of right-wing populism. But while it is true that the party’s success has been fuelled by fears about high levels of immigration, it would be wrong to think that the British have suddenly embraced the far right.
Nigel Farage, the charismatic leader of UKIP, is not a racist, despite the unacceptable views of a small number of oddballs who attached themselves to the rapidly growing party. When those with far-right sympathies are identified they are kicked out. Farage has steered clear of linking up his party on the European stage with the Front National of Marine le Pen and the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, rightly believing that their Islamophobia is regarded as toxic in the UK. The UKIP leader has never called for bans on mosque-building or veil-wearing. He is in fact the authentic voice of working class anger at dramatically higher levels of immigration over the past 15 years from all corners of the world which have left some communities feeling overwhelmed. This was exacerbated by tougher economic conditions but UKIP has been successful at retaining its support despite the recovery. Why?
Farage stands out among the other leaders of the main political parties for his folksy charm and his willingness to speak uncomfortable truths. All three main party leaders are smart young men from the country’s top universities who have spent most of their lives in politics. They look and sound very similar. Farage, who did not go to university and had a 20-year career as a commodity trader in the City of London, offers an alternative for protest voters fed up with what they see as a metropolitan political elite. The usual outlet for protest votes, the Liberal Democrat party, is no longer available having joined the coalition government in 2010. UKIP supporters come from a variety of backgrounds, not just the disaffected right-wing. Only a quarter of UKIP voters describe themselves as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ right-wing.
Although the party was formed to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, polling shows that Europe is only the third most important issue for UKIP voters. Their top priorities are immigration and the economy. When asked by YouGov pollsters which issues directly affect “you and your family”, Europe is sixth behind the economy, immigration, health, pensions and welfare benefits. UKIP’s call for a five-year moratorium on new migrants coming to settle in the country may be unrealistic but struck a chord with many voters angry that politicians in the other parties shy away from tough questions about immigration.
The UKIP surge is unlikely to be repeated at next year’s general election. Around half of their voters are likely to go back to an established party when the future of the national government is at stake, polling analysis suggests. This is because it is notoriously difficult for a new party to make a breakthrough in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, where only the candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins the seat.
Despite the breakthrough of UKIP in May, the story of the far-right in Britain is one of decline. The anti-immigrant British National Party (BNP) lost both of its Members of the European Parliament in May’s election, after another one of the splits that tends to characterise extremist parties. One of the BNP MEPs had already left to form a different far-right party and the remaining member, the party leader, was declared bankrupt. The far-right has failed to take off as Britain has become more comfortable as a multi-ethnic society. The 2011 census showed that the ethnic minority population grew from nine per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent, while the number of people claiming a mixed-ethnic background has almost doubled to around 1.2 million.
Restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians from coming to Britain to look for work under the terms of their European Union membership ended in January this year, giving UKIP the chance to bash the EU’s freedom of movement policy. UKIP’s success has made politicians from the traditional main three parties reluctant to speak out in defence of migration and its benefits. This has generally been left to European commissioners or academics and has left the stage free for UKIP to scare voters with fears of mass arrivals of poor people from eastern Europe who have to be found houses and schools. The EU has not helped by refusing to adapt its free movement policy to make it harder for jobless migrants to settle and receive benefits in much richer countries, where taxpayers resent having to support them. It is one factor, combined with UKIP’s success, which has driven Prime Minister Cameron to promise a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU in 2017 if he wins the general election. This is the really important impact of UKIP. It is not a sign of the far right rearing its head in Britain but its blend of populist and protest politics has driven the country to the brink of departure from Europe.