UKIP is offering disengaged and disillusioned Britons a return to a less challenging, more cohesive past.
UKIP is offering disengaged and disillusioned Britons a return to a less challenging, more cohesive past
One UKIP result – Douglas Carswell’s resounding victory in Clacton-on-Sea – came as no surprise. The other – the extremely close result in Heywood and Middleton – was less expected.
Taken together they present a serious challenge to the political mainstream. But what is the nature of that challenge?
Political and media debates about the rise of UKIP have tended to focus on whether and to what extent they are splitting the Conservative vote. However, this week’s events hold broader lessons for all political parties around the nature of political disengagement in the United Kingdom.
This is reinforced by new IPPR research on class identities in Britain. Polling conducted to assess the views of different groups in British society on both their own and the country’s future challenges the view that UKIP’s support is primarily being driven by a disaffected and ‘left behind’ working class.
The survey confirmed that the white working class (defined in terms of occupation) are a large political constituency for UKIP. Half of those who said they intended to vote for them in the next general election had a white working class background.
However, nearly one in three of those who said they intended to vote Conservative or Lib Dem fell under the white working-class category, as did 43 per cent of those who intended to vote Labour.
Labour still overwhelmingly receives the largest portion of white working-class support (41 per cent of the white working class as a whole in our poll). Yet rising support for UKIP among the white working-class means that Labour is the party with the largest base to potentially lose.
IPPR’s research also showed that disengagement from the mainstream political parties is not isolated to working class voters. Only 31 per cent of Britain’s white working class think democracy in Britain works for them, but Britain’s middle classes (the ‘ABC1’ group) are only marginally more optimistic (43 per cent).
Well over half of respondents to our poll believe that the political system in the UK does a bad job at addressing their problems (68 per cent of Britain’s white working class and 59 per cent of the middle classes).
Meanwhile, a staggering 86 per cent of white working class respondents and 78 per cent of middle class respondents believe that politicians don’t understand the lives of people like them.
These figures should be cause for profound alarm across all parties.
There is a clear danger that politicians will respond to these developments with ever more extreme promises to slash immigration to levels that are unachievable in a globalised world characterised by relatively high and steady levels of migration.
Yet as Douglas Carswell has acknowledged himself, the UK cannot succeed without the skills and drive of those who come to the UK to make a clear contribution.
It is also unlikely that the introduction of restrictionist policies designed to dramatically reduce migration levels (which would involve further cutting the number of international students and substantially curtailing the right to family reunion), will on their own address the growing disconnect between the British public and the governing class.
Part of the reason why this is so is because immigration is an issue not just because it involves numbers of people coming in, but because those numbers are real people who go on to live in real communities. Some of the impacts that arise are beneficial, but not all. And the negative ones, IPPR would argue, are driving disaffection quite as much as the management – and level – of inflows.
A more effective approach therefore would involve supporting local communities that are struggling to adapt to change, and promoting inclusive public services and political processes that can re-engage and give confidence in the future to all British citizens. Whoever is in power has to help local areas to develop their own strategies to ensure that we can all live together more easily in a society increasingly defined by high migration and diversity.
For that is the reality now and into the future for Britain. UKIP – at its extremes at least – is seeking to offer disengaged and disillusioned Britons a return to a seemingly less challenging, more cohesive past. The mainstream parties mustn’t be tempted down that path but rather must set out a new vision – one which engages with Britain as it is but offers more hope for those who feel alienated from it.
Alex Glennie is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy ResearchLike 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.