Of course UKIP were going to do well in Clacton, the establishment consoled themselves after Douglas Carswell eviscerated the Tories in his thumping by-election victory.
After all, they said, Carswell’s seaside constituency is chock full of exactly the type of unlettered, economically left-behind losers who would be hoodwinked by Nigel Farage’s politics of grievance and fear. But just wait until Rochester and Strood, when the less personable Mark Reckless has to face his more enlightened constituents at the ballot box after jumping ship to UKIP. The Tories’ formidable campaigning operation will kick into gear, the UKIP advance will be halted and normal political order will be restored.
So went conventional wisdom, and the general thrust of most mainstream analysis in the aftermath of the Clacton result. But no longer. A poll by ComRes, released last night, gave UKIP a commanding 13 point lead in the Rochester and Strood constituency, with UKIP on 43%, Conservatives on 30%, Labour on 21% with the Greens and Liberal Democrats fighting for scraps with 3% each.
It’s now officially time to panic. And each faction of the British political establishment is quietly losing the plot in their own uniquely predictable way.
Ed Miliband, campaigning in Rochester, scrambled to announce that the Labour Party would introduce a new immigration bill if entrusted with power again by the voters in 2015. But given Labour’s commitment to keep Britain within the European Union regardless of popular opinion, he was forced to dress up a collection of workaday, common sense proposals in the language of “toughness” that the focus groups keep telling him they want to hear. Only the focus groups want the action, not just the language. The BBC reports:
In his speech Mr Miliband reiterated Labour’s promise to count all people going in and out of the UK and make it a criminal offence when employment agencies recruit exclusively from abroad.
He added that he would improve and expand apprenticeships and ensure that “public sector workers in public-facing roles have minimum standards of English”.
These measures would be included in an Immigration Reform Bill, to be outlined in more detail in the first Queen’s Speech after a Labour victory next May, he said.
The Labour Party proposals straddle the spectrum between sensible and ludicrous. It is absolutely right that we should at least begin to count and record the number of people entering and leaving the UK – one would have thought that anyone in possession of a computer and Microsoft Excel could build a rudimentary database to do this. And toughening up the eligibility criteria for migrant benefits is also welcome, and long overdue.
But Miliband’s proposal to enforce longer transitional controls on immigration for new EU countries is a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted – what other large countries will conceivably join the EU in the near future? And the pledge to control “immigration from outside the European Union, making sure it’s fair, making sure there are clear rules and those rules are applied” will only make it harder for precisely the type of people that Britain needs to settle here – skilled workers, professionals and students from the Commonwealth and Anglosphere.
The Labour Party may hope that they are given credit for spurning “false promises on immigration”, but Ed Miliband insults the intelligence of wavering Labour-UKIP voters if he thinks that his new immigration proposals, specifically and carefully worded to avoid any mention of the one type of immigration which causes these people most anxiety, will tempt them back into the fold.
Meanwhile, the Tories pre-empted the depressing polling data from Rochester by picking a fight with José Manuel Barroso, outgoing president of the European Commission. Barroso, on the UK stop of his farewell tour, had poured cold water on David Cameron’s back-of-an-envelope idea to get around the EU’s principle of free movement by limiting the number of National Insurance numbers issued to new migrants, calling the idea “airy fairy” and warning of “red lines” that other European countries would not accept in any renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership. The BBC reports:
Speaking on a visit to Essex on Monday, the prime minister said: “I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to and it’s the British people. They want this issue fixed, they’re not being unreasonable about it and I will fix it.”
That’s a great quote – very Love Actually, very redolent of Hugh Grant standing up to the bullying fictional American president. But it belies the obvious truth that thanks to Britain’s membership of the EU, it is precisely such unelected politicians as the outgoing Barroso and incoming Jean-Claude Juncker (who is no more obliging to the UK’s demands) who wield the ultimate power and the title of “boss”, with the United Kingdom and the British people, divested of sovereignty, who play the role of supplicant, begging for concessions.
Moving from Westminster to Fleet Street, David Cameron’s favourite columnist, Blairite Labour-in-exile Dan Hodges, seized upon the high negative ratings for UKIP as evidence that they are the new nasty party in British politics, before overreaching and suggesting that a Conservative loss in Rochester will be definitive proof that UKIP-appeasement is a losing strategy. Hodges writes:
“They just don’t get it,” Ukip’s apologists sneer. “The political establishment are just playing into their hands.” So rather than confront them, the Tories and Labour try to mimic them. Which ends with the result that we saw in Clacton, and will see again in a couple of weeks in Rochester and Strood.
Our political class does not know how to deal with Farage. So instead it will have to be left to the British people to deal with him.
As someone who seeks to understand and empathise with UKIP’s growing number of supporters rather than demonising, belittling or behaving condescendingly toward them, this probably makes Semi-Partisan Sam a “UKIP apologist” in Hodges’ eyes. Nonetheless, one would have to be blind to miss the increasing tone of panic and desperation in Hodges’ recent missives:
We British aren’t that fond of cruel zealots. Moderation is the defining part of our character. It doesn’t matter whether you come from the Left or the Right: however superficially popular your message may appear, once you cross a basic threshold of tolerance, we will sense something isn’t right. And we will reject you …
Yes, it may get Farage as far as Rochester. Ukip remain a useful means of expressing displeasure at a range of issues, from the state of the economy to funding of the NHS to legitimate concerns about immigration.
But it won’t get him much further. The electorate are on to Ukip now. They have the new nasty party pegged.
Dan Hodges errs when he conflates the online activities of certain die-hard UKIP supporters (attacking the British Red Cross for refusing a donation of money raised from sales of the UKIP calypso song) with the general stance and tone of the party. Was it unseemly and churlish of various UKIP officials to react as they did? Absolutely (though the charity’s refusal to accept the money because the calypso allegedly stigmatised refugees and asylum seekers is entirely misplaced – the song only criticises illegal immigrants). But Hodges is enforcing a double standard: Conservative ex-Civil Society minister Brooks Newmark also criticised charities for wading into politics without ushering in the apocalypse.
More to the point, if Hodges is correct in his assertion that the British people will not tolerate a party that demonises a segment of society, the Labour Party would be right alongside UKIP in the dock, guilty by association with their own online trolls of an incessant verbal war on bankers, toffs and “tory scum”. If UKIP was truly the nasty, BNP-lite party that Hodges portrays, they would not be performing as well as they are in local by-elections and national polls. If Hodges learns nothing else from the rise of UKIP, it would be gratifying if he could finally disenthrall himself of the false belief that opposition to unlimited intra-EU migration is indistinguishable from xenophobia or racism.
None of this is to say that UKIP are entirely undeserving of this latest onslaught of criticism. The desperate manoeuvrings of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy party within the European Parliament to avoid dissolution mean that UKIP now keeps company with a Polish MEP and party with truly odious views on the Holocaust and violence towards women. A convincing case can be made that UKIP should have taken a moral stance and willingly forfeited the funding and influence that comes from being part of an approved European Parliamentary grouping. Hodges certainly takes this stance, albeit an easy position to hold when your own party’s power and influence is not at stake:
Nigel Farage is always at pains to explain how his party shuns racism and extremism. It’s a sham, of course, as I’ve written countless times before. And his embrace of the KNP proves it’s a sham …
Ukip – despite their self-indulgent protestations to the contrary – are just as keen on gorging themselves on the European parliamentary gravy train as any other party. That’s why the deal was done – so they could form the grouping, and get their hands on more EU cash.
Another reason Ukip have been happy to get in bed with Korwin-Mikke and his extremists is because Ukip is an extremist party itself. As it has demonstrated, it regards Holocaust deniers and racists as its political soulmates …
Ukip is only a party in the loosest sense of the word. In truth it is more akin to a cult, a cult that follows one man, and one man alone – Nigel Farage.
This blogger concurs that forming a political alliance with the Polish KNP is beyond the pale, and that UKIP should have forgone the additional EU funding and influence bestowed by being part of an approved parliamentary grouping if necessary rather than doing so. However, the number of voters who pay attention to European politics and are likely to be swayed by the news is small, and the backroom dealings that are so much a part of the European Parliament’s workings are as much a testament to the opacity and corruption of European “democracy” as they are to UKIP’s opportunism. In short, backroom dealmaking in the European Parliament may reinforce the existing prejudices of someone like Dan Hodges, but will make little difference among UKIP supporters or the undecided.
Ultimately, all this dismissive talk of Ukippers as cultists will yield Hodges nothing, because it bears no relation to reality. Does the figure of Nigel Farage loom large within UKIP? Of course, but how could it be otherwise in a young, rapidly expanding political party? Hodges is clearly spoiling for a fight, and desperate for the establishment parties to take the fight to what he sees as the enemy. But even as he exhorts mainstream politicians to engage with UKIP on the substance and make a positive case for Europe and unlimited immigration, he himself ducks the challenge and resorts to smears and personality-based attacks on the party’s supporters. If Dan Hodges’ vision of Britain’s place in Europe and the world is so self-evidently wonderful, why does he never elaborate on it in his columns?
The answer, of course, is that he cannot. Deep down, Dan Hodges and the establishment he serves as head cheerleader know that they cannot speak honestly to the British people and admit the simple truth: that freedom of movement is working very well for them and their kind (other university-educated people and information economy workers) thank you very much, and that if it causes wage stagnation and social misery for people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale, tough luck. Screw you, we got ours.
So instead we get lots of handwringing about the need to “get the job done” for the British people, and faltering attempts by the main political parties to talk UKIP’s language while pressing on with the same policies that have enriched the elite and undermined the working classes.
The free movement of peoples in Europe is a wonderful idea. But in order for it to work painlessly, you need an education system that produces young adults capable of doing the type of skilled jobs that cannot be automated, outsourced or undercut by immigrants from poorer parts of the EU. And for the millions of British adults who currently lack these lucrative skills, you need viable pathways back into education or training to re-equip them to compete in this new world. That’s the difficult political conversation that nobody is having right now.
So keep on slinging mud at UKIP if it makes you feel better – it certainly seems to be cathartic for Dan Hodges. Or take the stance of the legacy parties and start talking like UKIP while still pressing ahead with the same old policies, if you prefer. But if we keep on ducking the difficult conversation, the only person laughing will be Nigel Farage.