Tough on UKIP, Tougher on the Causes of UKIP

Many moderate and progressive folk, like myself, are struggling to counter UKIP’s rise in the polls.
If we oppose UKIP, we are in danger of tarnishing its supporters as somehow all racists or bigots- when they clearly aren’t. If we stay silent, we are contorted by the knowledge that UKIP’s methods and language is harmful and poisonous- not only to our politics, but directly to the people it attacks. UKIP sickens us and we must respond.

The debate about whether UKIP is ‘racist’ or not in a sense deflects us. It depends on what we mean and what we feel when we use the term ‘racist.’ On a narrow reading- a sense that a person or group is targeted for their ethnicity or skin colour- then it is more questionable if UKIP is ‘racist’. It is not an openly, overtly racist group such as the BNP. In a broader sense- attacking a person or group to which one identifies for its religious beliefs, language groups, customs etc. as well as ethnic identity- then UKIP clearly is racist in this sense. Its manifesto explicitly targets Romanians. Farage has openly warned that a Romanian family moving into one’s street is a cause for alarm. Gerald Batten, its MEP in London has called for all Moslems to swear a special oath of loyalty and all mosque building should be banned.  Its party political broadcast had a self-styled Rhodesian wishing all Africans to kill themselves off. The examples are plentiful. What if we agree that UKIP’s leadership and members hold many offensive and bigoted views about many minority groups and- perhaps more insidiously- are exploiting people’s fear and anxieties to target such groups, rather than conduct a sober and dignified debate aimed at solving real difficulties in Britons’ lives?

Because UKIP is a symptom, not a solution. It is not even really a protest movement about the EU, but one long scream about change in our world and our communities, as Matthew Goodwin and  Rob Ford eloquently reveal in their brilliant recent work ‘The Revolt on the Right.’ UKIP voters are by and large ‘The left behind’- sections of modern Britain who have not benefited much from the diversity and economic growth of the past 20 years and who feel bitterly isolated from any form of connection to the decisions and politics governing their lives. Slapping UKIP down will not help these citizens. They are too angry and too isolated to care or to hear if UKIP is branded ‘extremist.’ They have fears and concerns that must be taken into consideration. We must be tougher on the causes of UKIP.

Which is not to say that the UKIP slogans or (I hesitate to use the word) ‘policies’ have any merit. We must be tough on UKIP. If folks are suffering with poor job opportunities, stretched health services or lack of housing, the cause is not free movement from the EU, and  the solution is not to exit  the EU or impose immigration controls. The answer is more investment in our public services and a fairer redistribution of wealth from the increased pie that the EU helps create; and a fostering of economic opportunities (for firms and citizens) that create jobs and skills.

We have to go beyond economics. As Farage has admitted, he could live in a Britain if it was outside the EU even if it made us less well off. As one put it ‘A Poorer, but Purer UK.’ And this enters the heart of the debate: Identity, Destiny and “Us’. UKIP is creating and living its own myth of what it means to be British (and more particularly ‘English.’) It’s  an odd combination of flawed history, sentimentality and exaggerated sense of purpose; a curious mix of grandiosity and paranoia. One the one hand we British are superior to our Continental cousins and single handedly won the Second world war; on the other, we are somehow being endlessly bullied and put-upon by ’Them’. As Geoffrey Howe put it in his famous resignation speech we are “ Facing a Continent positively teeming with ill-intentioned people.’  UKIP is unwittingly crafting the  latest chapter in English Nationalism  and seeking to build its image of our nation. And as Karl Deutsch observed a Nation is formed by  “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.”

This then is the challenge of all on the pro side. It is to engage with the deeper sense of who we are as a people and to convey a story and a purpose that carries us to the future- including those left behind. It will require a totally different form of campaigning and persuasion. Too often the rational and reasonable assumptions of ‘Just give them the facts, and they will be persuaded’ have obtained. Clegg in his debates was an obvious example here. What I call the ‘Excel Spreadsheet’ approach. Totally inadequate. Of course facts matter- we can leave the lying to UKIP, but they are a small fraction of what will persuade. We need to put facts into contexts and stories that connect with the voters and answer their concerns and their values. Numerous experts have explored what this value-based approach looks like (e.g. George Lakoff, Drew Westen or Chris Rose). We need to use metaphors and analogies that stick and make sense to the audience.  Of course UKIP want to take us back to the past- they want to stop the world. But when Clegg referred to a return to the ‘Gold Standard’ he lost his audience- it was a classic left-brain, technocratic response. What image does Gold Standard conjure up in your mind? Actually, probably something good! Better would have been to refer to a return to the smog of 1950s London- the unprotected and dirty world that UKIP’s policies entail; or to a Thalidomide-affected  child, the consequence of weak and fragile regulation (the ‘libertarian’ UKIP world.)

So far, there has been no systematic building or testing of  the Pro story. It’s the challenge we must take up. Time is running out.