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UKIP – a wake up call

Tim Pendry suggests that UKIP is a lesson on what can happen when a Government declares cultural war on a section of its people.

There are two common reactions on the Left to the recent rise of UKIP - the cynical and the hysterical.

New Labour analysts are nothing if not realists.  A combination of middle class frustration with an incompetently led and divided Tory Party and an aggressive ‘climate of fear’ security agenda designed to stimulate the testosterone glands of the men in white vans should, in their view, be sufficient to salami-slice the traditional Tory vote at the next Election.

To such analysts, UKIP is a short-term opportunity to be exploited.  Its rise might even frighten enough liberals into sticking with the devil they know and so ensure the majority that is needed for four or five more years of power.

Liberals and progressives, meanwhile, are getting themselves into a thorough tizzy about a chimera.  UKIP is not as nasty as they think it is.  It only exists because it meets the needs of a genuine groundswell of anxiety about New Labour's programme of modernisation.  

The true importance of UKIP lies somewhere between its short term utility to New Labour and its occasion for moral outrage.  It is a uniquely English response to a broader phenomenon - the revolt against centralised modernisation and the perception that freedoms are being eroded by a political elite that is neither entirely honest nor competent.

If there is a barrier to any further growth by UKIP within the political process, it lies in the relatively sound economic management of Gordon Brown even as his taxation and regulatory policies fuel the anger of its small and medium-sized business constituency.

UKIP is fuelled by problems in regions that are decaying as fast as inner cities in the Thatcher era but for opposite reasons.  The decay is cultural and environmental not economic and it arises from a combination of over-concentrated economic growth and lack of public expenditure on the ground to manage its effects.

The inner contradiction of the UKIP revolt is that it has the makings of a revolt against taxation, centralisation and modernisation but its recent growth owes more to lack of spending by Government than to any other factor.  

Central Government imposes a vast range of duties on Councils that are really extensions of national social policy and something has to give.  What gives are frontline local services and any sense of responsible planning for the community.  Local people are accused of being Nimbys and are allowed no voice on environmental effects yet they have to live with the consequences.

Voters, especially the older generation, are watching the towns and villages they live in decay before their eyes under the pressure of litter, small shop and post office closures (now extending into these towns from the villages) and ‘anti-social behaviour’.  Levels of noise and pollution, without the checks and balances introduced by inner city Councils like Islington and Camden, are increasing.

From a core of europhobes regarded as fanatics by the rest of the euro-sceptical movement, UKIP has grown to feed on discontents that are not only about abstract issues such as ‘freedom’ or single issues such as Europe or migration.  They are directly related to central Government's attempts to use local Councils as transmission belts.  People cannot see why things are getting worse and what they can do about it except to protest.

Outside the South East, the problem is the direct opposite - duties imposed on localities without the economic development to pay for it.  The hospitals and schools may be improving (and all the evidence suggests that they are) but neo-liberal policies are undercutting the sense of place and locality that is important to many of the indigenous population without generating surpluses to spend on improvements.  Protesters have no analysis, only experience to call upon.

Hysteria from the Left about UKIP tends to come from accusations of xenophobia and racism.  Although UKIP may attract nasty types who see more long-term opportunities with UKIP than with the BNP, all the evidence suggests that, while UKIP is culturally conservative and nationalist, it is not necessarily racist.

Much of the assumption that UKIP is xenophobic arises from the anti-Muslim diatribe, published in error in a Sunday newspaper,  that resulted in Robert Kilroy-Silk being ousted from the BBC and into a leading position at UKIP.  

In fact, Kilroy-Silk's first attempt to grab the leadership of UKIP as a milk-and-water Jorg Haider ran into the sand and the leadership of UKIP remains what it always was - small-minded, petit-bourgeois and probably basically both decent and a bit stupid at the same time.  

It is far more convenient for the Left Establishment to label UKIP as racist and fascist than to deal with its own complicity in their rise through their policies of aggressive development and centralisation of power.  

If UKIP has an unintentional godfather, it is John Prescott whose office appears incapable of understanding that non-urban and small town communities need to have a stake in their own planning.  

For example, more housing is a good but the use of the market through the easing of planning laws without consensual community-driven expert planning of the surrounding environmental infrastructure is not good.  

The short-term policy of encouraging housing to let has degraded whole inner town areas, without providing the housing needed in the villages.  Licensing policies are turning inner towns into imitations of Ibiza just as Government claims to be concerned about anti-social behaviour.

The common denominator behind all this is Government's odd combination of corporatism and market solutions.  Local Government is told what to do - and one of things it is told to do is to obey legal frameworks that privilege private/public partnership and the rights of business.

So, while the cynical New Labour view about UKIP is probably correct, UKIP still represents, in part, a legitimate revolt against both modernisation and the political class.  This is a revolt that should have been led from the Left and we should still worry that it is UKIP and not us who are leading this revolt.


UKIP might claim to be protecting England's liberties against foreign encroachment, but it is instructive that right-wing libertarians do not like UKIP precisely because it might well have the propensity to protect those liberties through authoritarian methods.  

This, we suppose, is the root of Blunkett's own argument that New Labour must be decisive about security in order to pre-empt the Right from capturing this territory.  But surely the Left should be dealing with the causes of the discontent in Middle England instead of simply adopting more palatable versions of policies that the Right might adopt if they got truly nasty.

What should the Left do about UKIP?  First, it should take it seriously.  Second, it should have a strategy for undercutting its appeal.  Third, it should not panic.

A key element of Left policy should be to end the cultural war on indigenous rural and small town cultures, of which the fox-hunting bill is only the most obvious example, and to start devolving control of community planning and service provision along democratic socialist lines.

Ideally, Prescott and Blunkett should be replaced with people capable of understanding that economic development and law and order require the informed consent of the governed ˇ stealth measures in economic, planning and security policy fuel distrust.

Above all, New Labour should understand that the European experiment, the associated liberalisation of the European economy and the creation of a security apparat for the European State are justifiably matters of concern to the English people.

I have diminished the real long term threat of UKIP and I hold by that view.  However, I am concerned about the next stage in our national political trajectory.  

It is madness that a whip-driven House of Commons, under both main parties, can over-ride local cultures and communities and individual rights over and over again without recourse to anything other than the judicial process, another accretion of unaccountable power.  It is madness that a whip-driven New Labour can still (after seven years) not have established the sort of democratic, libertarian, socialism that can build on the sound economic strategies of the Chancellor, create sustainable wealth, improve infrastructures and take us out of the limelight of involvement in imperialist wars.

UKIP should be a wake-up call - not about the threat of racism and fascism but about a divided nation.  Activists one day may not merely take to the streets in harmless demonstrations and stunts that outrage the increasingly pompous Mr. Hain, but they may provide the seeds for the sort of violence that we might associate with Italian politics.

Perhaps this is what UKIP may come to represent - the first serious strike in a coming war of State and People.  As in all such crises, the true statesperson finds a way not to provoke the confrontation in the first place.