Slowly the dust is beginning to settle on UKIP’s latest by-election victory. This one could be analysed as more or less important than the last one dependent on a number of factors.
Rochester and Strood was a considerably less attractive target seat for UKIP than Clacton on Sea. It has much less of the older, poorer, white, “left behind” demographic which has been previously identified as the classic UKIP voter. Furthermore it seemed that Mark Reckless is not as popular an MP as Douglas Carswell who has built up a formidable reputation and had significantly increased the Tory membership in his constituency before defecting to UKIP. There were frequent references during the Clacton by-election to Carswell’s popularity. It seems this slightly awkward looking public school educated intellectual is actually genuinely popular in his constituency and also at Westminster: so much so that many Tory MPs were apparently unwilling to go to Clacton to campaign against him.
None of that pertained at Rochester and Strood: it is richer, closer to London and Reckless was not regarded as highly by his constituents nor his former Westminster Conservative colleagues. Cameron and the Tories, especially Michael Gove, the newly demoted chief whip, were desperate to get the seat back. In Gove’s case it was like a dog which has just been beaten desperately trying to regain its master’s favour. Despite throwing the kitchen sink at the election a sink was duly returned (both literally and figuratively).
As such the Rochester and Strood election could be suggested to be more important, marking a real break through for UKIP. That said this looked very like a by-election protest vote: even more so than Clacton. Anyone who follows UK politics can think of the numerous times when the Liberal Democrats (remember them – no neither can I: oh yes I do vaguely) took safe seats from the government at by-election only to lose them at the general election even more emphatically than they had won them. Apparently many voters in Rochester suggested they would vote UKIP to give Cameron a kicking and then go back to the Tory fold come next May. As such the Conservatives can be fairly confident of retaking Rochester whereas Clacton will be a much harder ask.
It is still unclear how many seats UKIP could get at the general election. It is beginning to look likely that they will have some representation (and probably more than just Carswell’s seat) after May. However, at least as interesting, though less focused on has been the shifts in the voting demographics of UKIP, the changes in its leadership and how that relates to its leadership’s policies and interaction with their supporters. In that there may be the seeds of the same sort of disconnect which already afflicts the three major parties (if the Liberal Democrats can still be counted as a major party)
UKIP was initially founded by Alan Sked a serious academic from LSE. Initially it was an intellectual, broadly right wing libertarian party. Nigel Farage has gradually and spectacularly transformed it from being a bit of a joke to a semi serious political force. In the process it has shed much of its intellectualism and become much more populist. The prejudice was that UKIP’s natural supporters were retired colonels and majors from the shire counties. Farage worked out some years ago that (to continue the military metaphor) there were a great many more corporals and privates than colonels and majors. As such he tacked towards a more populist and working class / lower middle class friendly set of policies and analyses. He correctly noted before anyone in the mainstream did that immigration especially from the new EU accession countries was much more an issue for the working and lower middle class than for the richer members of society.
Farage also correctly saw that the areas where recent immigration had had the greatest impact (in terms of demographic change if not always in numbers) were not, as with previous waves of migration, the industrial towns and cities of London, the midlands and the north. Rather the major burden of immigration and the places where it was causing issues was along the east coast of England in a great arc from Kent right round through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and into Lincolnshire; becoming less relevant into Yorkshire and further north. Essentially the east coast of the south east, east of England and east midlands. These areas actually once had a radical tradition (they formed much of the backbone of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the Civil War and Lincolnshire was the birthplace of Methodism). However more recently they had become a largely Tory forgotten backwater. The rural and smaller town working and lower middle class largely voted Tory though some switched to Labour during Blair’s pomp.
The claim is that New Labour wanted “To rub the right’s noses in diversity” and ensure a permanent Labour majority. Whether that is true or not the reality is that the effect of mass immigration was most felt in the east. Farage cottoned on to this earlier than almost anyone.
The claim was often made that the reason for mass migration especially to the highly productive agricultural (especially mass market horticultural) areas of the east of England was because the indigenous population would not do the work. Farage quite some years ago noted on Question Time that prior to mass migration the turnips did not rot in the fields of Norfolk and claimed that the people who benefited from mass migration were the gang masters. That was not picked up on much in the mainstream media at the time but I remember thinking it being an odd comment from a free market Thatcherite. Over the years, however, UKIP has moved significantly to the left on a number of issues. They have promoted the renationalisation of British Rail and consistently opposed privatisation of Royal Mail.
The idea of UKIP as a left wing party may seem ludicrous but largely because that is the simplistic thesis promoted by many in the media and UKIP’s political opponents. UKIP is also to an extent Nationalist Socialist were it not for the utterly awful associations of that term. However, shorn of those associations as a political ideology and an explanation for UKIP’s appeal it makes a significant amount of sense (patriotic socialist or one nation socialist might be more palatable terms). UKIP has managed to appeal to the English (though no one should forget that UKIP has a Welsh and Scottish MEP and a Northern Ireland MLA) working class remarkably successfully.
UKIP have been largely saved from degenerating into a far right BNP-lite types (national socialists in the traditional sense of the term) partly by their aggressive attempts to keep former BNP members out and their promotion of members from ethnic minorities who have been in the UK for many years. This is not a complete defence but does blunt the accusations of racism. Amusing as Dennis Skinner’s attack on Mark Reckless was in the Commons last week, previous similar attacks have failed to dent Farage’s bandwagon and there is no evidence they will do so now.
Farage, a privately educated commodities broker, may seem an unlikely champion for the English working class (a latter day Tribune of the Plebs?) but he has successfully managed it at the same time as keeping the colonels in the shires on side. Indeed it may be that the posh boys at the top in UKIP have helped prevent UKIP from descending into a BNP typed far right spiral of hatred and political oblivion.
Here, however, the latest Tory defectors could pose a problem. Carswell may be popular with many of his working class constituents but is a free market intellectual. Mark Reckless could be accused of being an early middle aged politician passed over by the Tories and sore about it, hence, his defection. The same could be applied to Douglas Carswell but seems less convincing. He has also been passed over but does appear a serious political thinker of the centre right. These new right wing leaders in UKIP may drag its centre of gravity back away from the more left of centre ideas UKIP has recently been propounding. One can hardly see Carswell suggesting renationalisation of the railways or Royal Mail. Already UKIP have dropped the suggestion of increased VAT on some luxury goods. At least from a UKIP perspective Carswell voted against same sex marriage though Reckless supported it.
UKIP’s recent successes have buoyed them but there is a danger that would be magnified even more if there were additional Tory defectors. That is that they drift back to the economic libertarianism which they have been edging away from. Furthermore getting more posh, independently educated Oxbridge types (though only Reckless is Oxbridge educated) might lead voters to conclude that UKIP’s leadership is just the same as all the others.
I have suggested it before but the largest gap in British politics is for a socially conservative, economically left of centre patriotic British one nation party. That party should be Labour under the right leader and with the right policies and properly pitched appeal. Alan Johnston might have been such a leader, a generation before Peter Shore could have been. However since the disasters of the 1980s Labour seem committed to social liberalism and indeed economic neoliberalism. Until the Labour party and the broader left understand that there is no contradiction between social conservatism, patriotism and a left of centre economic analysis they are unlikely to form a majority government.