It’s official. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has arrived as a presence in British local government. Elections last night saw a dramatic increase in their number of council seats; of the results so far announced, they have successfully defended two seats and gained 155. Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, conceded that Britain was entering an era of ‘four party politics’.
From a wider European perspective, anti-EU, anti-immigration populism has been relatively slow to make an impact in Britain. Such parties are already well-established in most western European party systems. The process has taken longer in the UK because the first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours established parties at the expense of newcomers. However, the sociological bases of right-wing populist support have much in common across western Europe.
It is usually well understood that anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties gain support from ultra-conservative voters, many of whom favour a very tough stance on law and order and immigration, and have strong and traditional views on national identity. Such voters have always existed in small numbers in the UK. The more moderate stance of UKIP (compared, for example, to the BNP) casts a wider net around the far right of the political spectrum.
Less well understood, however, is the increasing number of former Labour voters who are turning to UKIP. This is a product of the interaction between de-industrialisation, which has led to an increasing scarcity of skilled working class jobs across north-western Europe, and immigration, which is perceived to create increased competition for those scarce jobs.
Put simply, globalisation and neo-liberal policies, which have dominated economic and political thinking across western Europe since the 1980s, have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The ‘winners’ are the most educated and those who already have capital: these groups can take advantage of the increased opportunities to work, travel and conduct business across borders. At the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, life has become harder. Mines close because they are no longer efficient. Factories move to Romania or China. Tasks formerly carried out by skilled manual workers are now completed by computers or robots.
For the most part, these problems are not caused by the European Union. Successive British governments have chosen to embrace neo-liberal reforms. Globalisation and automation would happen whether or not Britain was a member of the EU.
However, the ‘losers’ of globalisation are a large sociological group, and one that has felt entirely unrepresented since the mid-1990s, when the Labour Party distanced itself from the unions and staked out new territory in the political centre. During the same period, the European Union has expanded both its powers (particularly post-Maastricht) and size (following the 2004 and 2007 expansions).
In the absence of proper representation, debate, and recognition of their concerns, the ‘losers of globalisation’ have become increasingly disenfranchised, and thus ripe for mobilisation by anti-immigration, anti-European populists. The economic crisis of 2008-2012 fuelled this already-toxic mix.
Britain’s traditional political parties miss the point when they decry UKIP as ‘racists’ and ‘scare mongerers’. By huddling in the centre/centre-right, and focussing on media-management at the expense of formulating original policies, or building links with society, Britain’s ‘traditional’ political parties have left both the right and the left of the political spectrum wide open, a situation that is ripe for what the eminent political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, termed ‘centrifugal competition’. Until mainstream political parties recognise the extent of the sociological change that has occurred in Britain, and the new demands that this creates, support for protest parties and populist parties is likely to continue to grow.
Dr Alison Smith holds a DPhil from St Antony’s College, Oxford. She teaches Comparative Government, European Politics, Politics of the EU and Russian Politics. You can follow her on Twitter @AliFionaSmith