There were boys in the London school where I was teaching in the early 1970s who couldn’t wait to leave school and start work. They did not welcome the raising of the school-leaving age from 15 to 16 in 1972, and were occasionally given to teasing us teachers for accepting what they thought of as a low-wage, uninteresting job. They were mostly vindicated, as there were real jobs awaiting them. That changed in the 1980s. I had left school-teaching by then, and I often wondered what happened to those lively and over-confident boys when Margaret Thatcher laid waste to manufacturing in this country and broke the trades unions in the process.
One answer is offered by Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, an academic study of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. Founded in 1993 as a single-issue group dedicated to taking the UK out of the European Union, UKIP has mutated erratically over 20 years to become a populist right-wing party that is seen as a serious threat to the established order.
UKIP now appeals, according to the book’s authors, to what they call “left behind groups,” those who see “a cosmopolitan, multicultural and globalised Britain as an alien and threatening place.” The majority are men; most are over 55, white and working-class; many have been unemployed or underemployed for years. Few had much education beyond the age of 16. Paradoxically, the authors suggest that these UKIP supporters are often a good deal less interested in the issue of EU membership than in UKIP’s hostility to immigration, and to Westminister politics and politicians. Many also once belonged to trades unions and voted for “Old Labour”: Labour, that is, pre-Tony Blair.
The authors view these groups as a symptom of tumultuous social change, the kind of change that other Western countries have also experienced. We’ve simply come later to the shift among working-class voters from Left to extreme Right than, for instance, France.
Since this book came out last year, two Tory MPs have defected to UKIP and been returned to Parliament in by elections. By far UKIP’s greatest success, however, is in electing, through a system of proportional representation, 24 of the UK’s 73 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) in Brussels and winning 163 seats in the most recent municipal elections, though they have not yet won control of any local governments. The expectation is that UKIP will run candidates for almost every seat in Parliament in May’s General Election, though we may be protected from having Nigel Farage (the head of UKIP) as our representative on earth by our first-past-the post, winner-take-all electoral system. UKIP’s membership has grown, but most people suspect it will have trouble winning many seats, since its support base among those “left behind groups” is spread across the country rather than huddling in any one constituency.
Ford and Goodwin have written a dispassionate and well researched book about this new political party, its history and its possible future. There are lacunae: not enough about the party’s financial backers, nor about the related weakening of the unions and of the working-class worlds many of these “left-behind” people once looked to. I should have liked, too, more personal testimony from people who have moved toward UKIP. However, the book makes up for that by describing the creation of a new political party (and they compare this at moments with the brief successes of the Liberal Democratic Party in the 1980s) from the viewpoint of those who are doing it, so that we get interesting insights into internal disputes and into UKIP’s perspective on the exploitable vulnerabilities of the main parties.
This is in many ways a dismal story of our times, though it’s possible to feel that it is less the growth of a right-wing politics that is surprising and dismaying than the thought of lives so blighted by unemployment, so unheard and powerless, that they are prepared to vote for a party as chaotic and negative as UKIP.