UKIP’s rise isn’t the end of politics – but it does mean the end of the left-right continuum

UKIP has short-circuited the left-right continuum and defied triangulation.

UKIP has short-circuited the left-right continuum and defied triangulation

Whether or not UKIP’s success last month was an ‘earthquake’, it was unquestionably a shifting of the tectonic plates. The striking factor about the May results was not the scale of the UKIP swing, but the ‘cravat and tracksuit’ breadth of the alliance behind it.

Nigel Farage’s victories were brought on by a coalition of Shire Tories and blue collar voters from outside London; those, across society, who consider themselves deficiaries of post-industrialisation.

The feeling among many on the left is of something inexorable. A rough beast; a centre that cannot hold. UKIP’s electoral appetite seems beyond placation. Paul Mason summed this up in his excellent article on Britain’s ‘culture wars’. The new division, he suggests, isn’t between left and right but between globalised and provincial.

Although this tells part of the story, it doesn’t fully explain the political implications. UKIP has short-circuited the left-right continuum and defied triangulation – the process where parties treat their core vote as secure and move towards the centre. Miliband can no longer fall back on working-class voters in Rotherham, nor Cameron take for granted ‘retired colonels’ in the Home Counties.

This has largely been attributed to Farage’s star quality and/or demagoguery – his role as lightning rod for disillusionment. There’s truth in this, but it gives him too much credit. What we’re actually seeing is something more profound: a bipolar political system in the process of becoming tripolar. Farage is the collector of this legacy – but he’s not its creator.

So what does this third pole look like?

The British Values Survey, ongoing since the 1970s, holds some answers. It segments the population into three groups: Settlers, Pioneers, and Prospectors. Settlers are socially conservative, and worried about external threats to resources. Pioneers are inner-directed, liberal and concerned about fairness. Prospectors are optimistic, competitive and esteem-driven.

It would be fair to say Labour’s historically redistributive, communitarian policies have been tailored to Pioneers and some Settlers, while the Conservatives’ have appealed to Prospectors and, again, some Settlers. Thatcher’s success was in making the Tories the undisputed Prospector party. Blair’s was in winning back Prospector votes – aspirational people who had become averse to the Tory line on immigration and sexuality.

The Values Model cannot be appropriated to party politics too neatly, but by differentiating between these groups it recognises something the political orthodoxy doesn’t. It identifies that, while social liberalism and economic conservativism have traditionally coalesced at one end of the spectrum – with economic liberalism the bedfellow of social conservativism at the other – they come from wholly different places.

These factions are now breaking off, though, and we’re moving towards a spectrum with three distinct ‘Poles’:

a)     Conservative, protectionist, communitarian, nationalistic, nostalgic

b)      Progressive, fairness-driven, economically conservative but internationalist

c)      Individualistic, big business, open to diversity (but considers it subsidiary to the market)

Or, to put it crudely, the Mail (Pole A), the Guardian (Pole B) and the Times (Pole C).

These fault lines aren’t new, but the way they’ve been laid bare – and exacerbated – since the financial crisis is. Whereas once the interests of the wealthy and the nationalistic might have been intertwined, there’s now scant overlap.

Indeed, the very label ‘Far Right’ – with its implication that common ground exists between the EDL supporter and the multinational company CEO (if only the latter were more extreme) – shows how redundant the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are. Pole A is no closer to Pole C than to Pole B.

Almost all explanations of this lead to one source: globalisation. This has exposed that the motivations of Poles A, B and C, which have often lain beside one another politically, are incompatible. It’s abruptly become clear, for example, that those who are anti-immigration and those who are pro-free markets actually don’t have much in common.

Indeed, in relation to the ‘European Question’ their views are irreconcilable.

Likewise on the left. Is Labour a champion of white working-class values or of the diversity cherished by the ‘metropolitan elite’? It’s becoming impossible to be both.

What currently have, then, is an increasingly tripolar spectrum, but imagined by politicians and public alike as a bipolar one. This creates a climate riven by cynicism, apathy, and non-sequiturs. Labour tries to appease those near Pole A by apologising for immigration. In so doing it convinces those near Pole B that it’s a right-wing sell-out, and those near Pole C that it’s the party of anti-market parochialism.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives cut the top rate of tax to appeal to Pole C: an affront to the egalitarian values of Pole B and the everyman alienation of Pole A.

Politics thus becomes a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. That the political actors become quicker at producing a flat palm or a bunched fist only further convinces the electoral of how sly and ideologically bankrupt they truly are.

Adapting to the post-globalisation, tripolar politics will be difficult. Whereas triangulation makes some sense – as a purely political strategy – quadrangulation does not. As the world changes the approach of ‘tacking’ one way or another – as though adjusting the volume on the television – will become unavailable.

Only by accepting this can party leaders – be they conviction or consensus politicians – find a way out of the present rut.

Chris Clarke is an associate researcher at the Campaign Company

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.