Monday, 13 October 2014

Labour's UKIP Problem

Of course some potential Labour voters, and others in areas that have traditionally voted Labour are considering voting UKIP.  Some have always voted Tory (and UKIP present themselves - somehow - as a less-toxic Tory Party in defiantly non-Tory areas).  Some have, in previous years, voted for the BNP or the National Front.  We live in very difficult times in which people have found themselves poorer and poorer and the only explanatory narrative that finds public utterance is that this is caused by a combination of immigration, welfare and Labour's record of public spending.

It is of course extraordinary double-think.  The only thing keeping many people even vaguely afloat is access to some benefit payments and access to services paid-for by public spending and both require the taxes of a working-age population, increasingly dependent on immigration in the context of an aging population.
But people are not hearing an alternative explanation anywhere.  It was once the job of the labour movement to provide that explanation; to be active on the ground, to mobilise, to inform and to challenge.  But the Labour Party has become increasingly reticent on the issue of causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  And they are becoming increasingly likely to validate the ludicrous UKIP explanation - by echoing it in awkward, embarrassed liberal terms - than they are to confront it.
There are two possible reasons for this reticence.  One is that the leading lights of the labour movement are genuinely unclear as to why we see such problems in our society. By abandoning a socialist analysis in the 80s and 90s they can no longer make a diagnosis.  The other is that they see this as a purely psephological problem: "how do we keep these voters?" rather than "how do we end low pay and insecurity?"  If the latter is true then it is because they are so removed from the problem: the low paid are now an "other" to be dealt with rather than the heart of the movement.  If this is true, then that is the real heart of Labour's UKIP problem.  UKIP will never be a workers' party - they are a more-Tory-than-the-Tories Thatcherite party - but they are able to temporarily exploit the absence of any workers' party, as fascist movements have done before them elsewhere in the world.
The elephant in the room is capitalism.  Capitalism causes low pay, insecurity and marginalisation and no party is more committed to its unfettered future success than UKIP.  They want fewer regulations on pay, working conditions and job security.  They want more cuts and privatisation.  They are the party that is 100% committed to making life worse for the least well-off in the United Kingdom.  That this party gets a single vote in an inner-city constituency is the worst kind of indictment of Labour's failure to engage with its base.  Tony Blair's "Clause IV" moment was more significant than many (even he) gave it credit at the time.  We fought it hard, but we knew no Labour government had ever sought "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" so it wasn't the end or the final defeat.  But by deleting that historic commitment and instead embracing a "dynamic market economy" and "the rigours of competition" the Labour Party lost the intellectual ability to challenge the economic dogma that creates UKIP's disingenuous explanation for social problems; an explanation echoed in the popular press and from the government.
The reason that every newspaper blames immigration, benefit claimants and the Labour Party for all social ills is that they are utterly and uncompromisingly committed to their real cause.  We can (and should) blame bad employers paying rock-bottom wages and slum landlords charging sky-high rents but it's more than that.  It is a system whose very logic dictates that employers should pay as little as they can get away with and landlords should charge as much as they can get away with, all of it bailed out by a state which increasingly sees its role as clearing the way for the pursuit of capital rather than to support a decent standard of living for its population.
Farage is disingenuous in his rhetoric on immigration.  Farage's problem is not really immigration (indeed he says this himself when trying to sound reasonable) it is a way of focusing opposition to Europe (and his opposition to Europe is really an opposition to regulation).  He does not want to replace European regulation with UK regulation, not in terms of working conditions but not in terms of migration either.  After all, that same system that creates social ills contains within it the logic for employers in the UK to seek their employees wherever they see fit in order to find workers who will work longer and longer for less and less.  Farage's real problem with EU immigration is that it prevents the expansion of non-EU immigration and his supporters' ability to find workers even more easily exploited.  That Farage has not been more easily taken down can only be explained by the conclusion that the establishment wishes to keep him exactly where he is.
The only approach that Labour can and should take to this is to face down and expose UKIP and to attack the real causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  Echoing Farage's rhetoric on immigration only validates UKIP's argument and pushes more voters into their arms, while alienating a host of other voters.  It is also morally, politically and intellectually bankrupt.
It must be possible - it is possible - to face down UKIP without seeming to patronise or insult people who have been attracted to their rarely-challenged rhetoric.  But Labour has to be brave to do this, because in facing down UKIP they are effectively facing down the full forces of the UK establishment who have found Farage's simple prescriptions the easiest way to detract attention from their beloved economic polity and the misery it creates.

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