UKIP’s populism could present a greater threat to the left than the right

If I feel a sense of déjà vu as I watch UKIP’s rise today, just imagine the view from Crosby’s chair at Conservative Party HQ. David Cameron’s election strategist hasn't just seen this film before - he's already written the script.

Tim Dixon is political director at New York-based Purpose.com

With all the disorder in Conservative ranks, it’s tempting for progressives to see UKIP as David Cameron’s worst nightmare. Yet UKIP’s ultimate legacy could be to change the politics of immigration and national identity, weakening one of Britain’s greatest strengths and eroding the progressive vote.

We won’t know the real damage UKIP inflicts, or against whom, until the smoke clears – but one recent historic parallel underscores how right-wing populists present a greater long-term threat to the left than the right.

Parallels with Australia

Fifteen years ago in Australia, a similar populist insurgency pulled the rug out from under the established parties, breaking records with 23 per cent of the vote in a Queensland state election. Spectators of the UKIP phenomenon will see many parallels, starting with the same 23 per cent vote this month.

This party – somewhat disconcertingly for today’s British politics, called ‘One Nation’ – energised its supporters with grave warnings about open-door immigration, the betrayal of national economic interests and the self-serving behaviour of the political class. Its leader, a former fish-and-chip-shop owner named Pauline Hanson, spoke in the common sense nostrums of mainstream voters.

And just like Nigel Farage, wherever Hanson went, she was welcomed by voters expressing their relief that at last someone was ‘saying what the rest of us have all been thinking’.

Within a couple of years One Nation went off the rails. Like Farage, Pauline Hanson had been a powerfully disruptive force, who brought colour and movement back to politics. She even taped a video message to be released in the event of her assassination, in which she stared down the barrel of the camera to announce, “Fellow Australians, if you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered”.

However the One Nation members who won elections were unready for public office. Their ranks were filled with just a few too many crackpots, opportunists and cranky malcontents.

Farage knows the risks and wants to prevent UKIP flaming out as One Nation did. It won’t be easy. Populist parties lack political polish. At first that’s an invigorating change from the mind-numbing soundbites of professional politicians. But the moment UKIP’s inexperience morphs into public displays of incompetence or indiscipline from its members – fiddling expenses, getting uppity or turning on each other – public support could collapse.

Long-lasting influence

While pop-up populists may be put back in their box, they can exercise influence long after they have disappeared. Power is derived from changing the debate as much as by winning seats.

In Australia we learnt the hard way. For a time, One Nation boosted Labor’s electoral prospects. As mostly conservative votes bled to One Nation, Labor first won office in Queensland and then won a majority of votes in the national election in 1998. Both were Labor’s first election from opposition, following successive terms of government.

Maybe UKIP will have a similar effect on British politics, splitting the right-of-centre vote and returning Labour to office. Certainly, it has destabilised the Tories and driven down the Conservative vote.

But UKIP’s legacy might be quite different. Australian conservatives also stumbled at first in the face of the populist insurgency.

But over time, that changed. Conservatives got smarter. First One Nation shifted the political debate to the right, bringing into the mainstream views on immigration, Indigenous affairs and asylum seekers that had previously only simmered on the political fringes. Then conservative prime minister John Howard followed, embracing many of those once-fringe views with a relish that often dismayed his own party’s moderates.

This was the legacy of Australia’s populist insurgency: a new politics of identity, race and asylum seekers. It delivered some short-term gains for Labor, but ultimately it cost Labor heavily. Conservatives learned from One Nation how to tap into a set of concerns shared by many Labor voters.

Labor’s response was confused and seemed disconnected from voters’ concerns. A swathe of blue collar voters defected to conservatives and stayed there.

Maybe UKIP’s rise may be just another example of the ‘flash politics’ of a news cycle obsessed with novelty and surprise. Maybe. But more dangerously, UKIP might break-up Britain’s broad consensus on immigration and Europe. That is dangerous, both to Britain and to Labour. It demands a front-footed response, and one that engages people while shifting the frame of the debate, as reports from organisations like British Future and Hope Not Hate have argued in recent years.

It won’t be easy. It may be crucial.

Country to country parallels in politics only extend so far, of course, and the Tory madness on Europe often feels like it’s from another planet. But there’s one last correlation. The campaign director for Australia’s conservatives during the whole period of One Nation was Lynton Crosby. If I feel a sense of déjà vu as I watch UKIP’s rise today, just imagine the view from Crosby’s chair at Conservative Party HQ. David Cameron’s election strategist hasn’t just seen this film before – he’s already written the script.

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